How Hiking Benefits the Brain

Walking up a hill or spending time in the woods isn’t just beneficial for your physical health. It has plenty of benefits for your brain too. 

Many people are surprised to hear about the mental benefits of hiking because the brain seems quite distant when it comes to hiking.

However, there’s enough research to show the health benefits of hiking. Besides giving you a chance to step away from your otherwise busy and noise-filled city life, hiking also calms your brain and improves cognitive functioning. 

Below, we’ll talk about the benefits of hiking for brain health and why you should make it more of a habit to go up a trail every once in a while. In the end, we’ll also discuss how to keep your brain healthy.

Hiking Makes Your Brain Sharper

Experts suggest that hiking is better for your brain than other exercises because it improves mental sharpness. In other exercises, you’re mostly repeating the same motion or gestures. On the other hand, in hiking, every sight and step is a new one. 

Additionally, hiking involves a lot of activities that are normally not a part of other exercises. These include trail marking, avoiding hidden obstacles, dealing with the weather, countering animals in your path, enjoying the sight from above, and adjusting to your surroundings. 

Two people hiking on a trail.

In his book, Successful Aging, Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, says that hiking nourishes the parts of your brain that are responsible for helping you navigate through life. 

Some of these regions include the hippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex. Since they also assist in memory forming and processing, it’s expected that hiking might keep these regions sharp. 

Think of the hippocampus as a natural GPS inside your body. 

When you’re only exercising, the hippocampus is working moderately. However, when you’re out hiking, this internal GPS is challenged to do more demanding tasks. 

A 2012 study showed that when the hippocampus is in a cognitively demanding situation, its working is enhanced. 

Hiking Enhances Brain Plasticity

Brain plasticity is among the top mental benefits of hiking. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to accommodate new information and adapt accordingly. Hiking enhances cognitive plasticity by learning new skills such as walking a new terrain or lighting a fire.

Neuroplasticity is a crucial power our brains possess. Besides distinguishing us from other species, this ability also helps us adapt to new situations. 

Moreover, it’s associated with memory. A 2013 study showed that adults who took up a new complicated skill had improved memory. 

When you’re out hiking, the first skill you must learn is to use a compass. Moreover, if you’re planning an overnight trip, you’d also have to learn other skills like pitching a tent, cooking outdoors, filtering water, etc. 

Trees Release Stress

Besides improving your memory and learning, hiking also helps release stress. It’s no secret that spending time around nature is good for your mind. But hiking takes it up a notch. 

When you’re surrounded by the flora and fauna of the terrain, your brain releases stress-relieving chemicals. Studies report people who spend time in green spaces to have a lower risk of acquiring chronic diseases. 

While there might be some other mechanisms, the one explained in this meta-analysis study is quite impressive. The study authors explain that trees release phytochemicals. When humans inhale these phytoncides, the chemicals have a stress-busting effect on the brain. 

Moreover, spending time in the woodlands can also help enhance the immune system’s function while boosting energy levels. 

Benefitting from nature isn’t a novel concept. The Japanese have been practicing ‘forest bathing’ for centuries as they recognize the advantages of being outdoors. Hiking has a similar effect as this Japanese practice. 

Another study showed that people who spend time around nature have lesser anxiety. Plus, their remuneration scores are low. Simply put, they’re less likely to worry about the same thing repeatedly. 

Moreover, the researchers noted that exposure to natural green spaces might improve cognition and benefit working memory span tasks.  

An interesting study led by Craig Anderson and his colleagues shows that being around nature inspires a feeling of awe. Being a powerful emotion, awe induces generosity and puts you in a better mood. 

Hiking Exploration May Enhance Neural Growth

Dr. Critchlow, an expert in the field, says that exploring new environments boosts nerve cell formation. Therefore, if you decide to explore a new trail on your hike, you’re doing your brain a favor. 

As new nerve cells are formed, they consolidate into the brain’s neural circuit. Thus, the brain starts using them too. While walking the same old route might be more comfortable, you can reap the health benefits of hiking by taking a new path this time. 

Hiking Sparks Creativity

Studies show that walking might have a positive effect on creative thinking. Thus, when you’re hiking, you’re pushing yourself towards a creative mindset. 

Similarly, a 2012 study reported that backpackers who spent four days in nature, away from their phones and other electronic devices, had 50% better creativity scores. 

The co-author of the study explains that the results indicate a relationship between nature and problem-solving skills. He further says that this study proves a healthier way to interact with the world than engrossing yourself 24/7 on a computer screen. 

Hiking Can Provide Depression Relief

It might seem far-fetched, but hiking can help prevent depression in the long run. A study showed that spending even the smallest amount of time in the green countryside reduces depression. 

A 2015 study at Stanford University also showed similar results. The researchers reported that being in the natural environment plays a role in calming the brain parts associated with mental illness.

Hiking Improves Memory

Hiking helps your brain keep things saved in its memory too. When you hike, blood, oxygen, and other essential nutrients travel to the brain. 

Various studies show that the increased flow of blood towards the brain helps neurons connect better in the parts responsible for memory and cognitive functions. In addition, the older people who exercise in small rounds have a better memory than those who don’t.

So, if you struggle to keep track of things, all you need to do is go out and hike. Moreover, going out would make your time more productive than merely sitting in front of a computer or tv screen.

Hiking Helps You Sleep Better

Hiking is a form of exercise, and exercise, according to science, is good for curing insomnia and getting better sleep. 

By and large, hiking may not have a direct impact on your sleep quality. However, it enhances your mood and decompresses your mind. Therefore, you can sleep peacefully with a calm mind and body.

Hiking Boosts Your Confidence

While hiking in nature, you not only enjoy the beautiful scenery, but it also uplifts your morale. When you walk, your brain releases endorphins. These neurochemicals help increase your overall mental health by making you strong against pain and stress. Moreover, they sometimes even make you euphoric.

The Independent reports that a mere 10 minutes of exercise helps you feel the endorphins rush in your body. 

A group of people hiking on a trail.

These mood-lifting endorphins empower you and give extra motivation to achieve your goals. In addition, you’ll feel more relaxed and lighter than ever.

How To Keep Your Brain Healthy?

Apart from hiking, there are plenty of other ways to improve your brain health. Follow the brain health tips below to maintain a healthy and wise brain.

Sleep Well

The importance of sleep for a healthy brain can’t be stressed enough. In fact, getting enough sleep is the easiest and simple trick to keep your brain working.

Ideally, you should get around 8-10 hours of sleep a day. Sleeping gives your brain time to restart and heal from stress or anxiety. It is the reason you feel relaxed after waking up from sleep.

Meditate

Like exercise is an integral part of a fitness regime, meditation is an essential part of the brain health regime. Even 5-10 minutes of meditation a day can effectively relax your brain and reduce anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Moreover, it is also beneficial for treating insomnia.

Eat Healthy

Try to maintain a diet that boosts brain health. For instance, blueberries, nuts, etc., are good for keeping the brain well. In addition, don’t eat foods having high saturated fats. Also, avoid frozen meats, cheese, and deli meat. All of these have high sodium and can trigger your blood pressure above normal.

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Don’t Stress

Stress and anxiety are one of the primary reasons for a deterred mental health. Whenever you are worried about something, start writing your concerns down. This way, your brain will get the message that everything is under control, and you will sleep calmly.

Conclusion

If you’ve been refusing to go on a hiking trip that your friends have planned, it’s about time you say Yes. After all, it will allow you to get the mental benefits of hiking while having a grand time outdoors. 

As studies show, hiking in the same spot is helpful. But if you take a new route this time, your brain will thank you later. Also, practice the brain health tips above to keep your brain healthy and bright.

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