Autumn, while signaling the end of long summer days and steamy summer nights, brings with it its own beauty and wonder. The changing colors of the leaves and crisp, cool smell of autumn are just two reasons to throw on your favorite hoodie and head out onto the hiking trail, but did you know that there is bona fide research out there that shows how hiking can improve both physical and mental health?
It’s just common sense to consider how looking up from our phones, turning off the TV and shutting off our tablets allows us to connect with the world around us in a way unparalleled by what those bright screens can provide. Yet, researchers have found that unseasoned hikers who disconnected from technology and spent four days immersed in nature improved their performance on a creativity and problem-solving task by 50 percent. This is something that many right-brained, creative types likely already know, yet serves as a good reminder for left-brainers, such as myself, who may find themselves swept up in the minutiae of everyday details and struggle with seeing the bigger picture.
The health benefits of cardiovascular activity, in general, have long been documented, and hiking is no exception. What you may not know is that the outdoor activity can also improve recovery rates for cancer patients. In a study measuring oxidative stress in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer, it was found that those who engaged in long distance hiking trips had better antioxidative capacity in their blood over time, thought to aid in fighting off disease.
Being outdoors and exploring nature also feels wonderful—no scientific research is needed to confirm that fact. Yet, the implications of this phenomenon extend far beyond those feel-good breaths of fresh air. One study of a group of people who rated highly on hopelessness and depression scales and had attempted suicide at least once resulted in some pretty amazing outcomes. Mountain hiking, as an add-on therapy to other mental health care, showed dramatic improvements in depression and hopelessness. Just goes to show how Western approaches to mental health would do well to include more “alternative” therapies to improve individuals’ overall health.
If you are a novice hiker and interested in being more involved in the great outdoors, there’s no better time to start than right now. Especially with the milder weather and the beautiful scenery of the fall, now is the time to fully appreciate nature’s splendor. Many communities have parks and activities that may be underutilized. There may be fall hiking events, kids’ exploration activities and outdoor yoga in your area, to name a few possibilities. And, to make sure you are enjoying the outdoors with a small footprint, follow these Green Hiking Tips. Get out there and get hiking!