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Six surprising ways hiking can improve your mental health

By Joe Miller | April 7, 2021 | Healthy Lifestyle, Fitness, Mental Health

It’s curious how well-versed we are in the physical benefits of hiking. The activity can:

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Reduce your risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure. (Hiking regularly has been shown to lower blood pressure by 4 to 10 points.)
  • Reduce the incidence of diabetes.
  • Help you lose weight. An adult, on average, burns 200 to 250 calories per hour hiking at a rate of 2.5 miles per hour. The number of calories doubles if you bump the pace to 4.5 miles per hour.

These physical benefits alone are reason enough to make you want to hike five miles a day.

But then consider that hiking may have an even more profound impact on your mental well-being. Why would you ever come off the trail? Among those mental and emotional benefits:

1. Reduces anxiety.

The American Hiking Society says your body produces adrenaline to cope with danger, real or perceived. If the adrenaline isn’t released, it accumulates, causing muscle tension and anxiety. Hiking is an accessible way of releasing that adrenaline. (Much more accessible than, say, to rock climbing or running an ultra marathon). Hiking also releases endorphins, which can improve mood.

2. Reduces the tendency to ruminate.

Along similar lines, a 2015 study at Stanford University found that people who walked in a natural setting for 90 minutes were less likely to dwell on negative thoughts about themselves. (FYI, a group that walked 90 minutes in an urban setting still had negative thoughts.)

3. Improves creative problem solving.

In another study, walking in nature and disconnecting from technology was found to improve creative problem-solving abilities by 50%.

In this case, participants spent four days backpacking without their phones. Detached from the constant distractions of a wired society, their brains were free to focus on the task at hand.

4. Reduces symptoms of ADHD.

In a study examining the impact of “green” activities on kids diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, “green outdoor activities reduced symptoms significantly more than did activities conducted in other settings.” The results were consistent along demographic lines.

5. Prevents dementia and cognitive impairment.

Another study found that exercise can prevent or slow dementia. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Joyce Gomes-Osman, told Healthline, “It’s direct evidence that exercise can turn back the clock in the brain.”

6. Curtails the loss of gray matter.

After 40, we begin to lose brain matter–especially gray matter, which helps us process information. But exercise “can grow and promote gray matter retention and thickness in important regions of the brain,” says Dr. Sarah C. McEwen.

While any type of exercise might seem to help with these conditions, hiking has an added benefit. Outdoors, on the trail, you’re in an environment that McEwen says forces you “to use spatial navigation, your memory, and your attention” with every step.

In addition to being so good for you, we should mention one other thing about hiking: It’s fun.

Has hiking changed your life and health?

If you’re a Blue Cross NC member, employee, or partner who has seen the health impacts of hiking first-hand, we want to hear your story. Tell us about it.