The Mental Health Benefits of Hiking

Hiking is a popular pastime often touted for the benefits it has on our physical health. But the health benefits of hiking extend beyond the physical, as the activity has been shown to have some pretty major impacts on both our short and long-term mental health. So from instant results, to those you will thank yourself for later, here are some of the main ways hiking can improve your mental health.

Chemical Reaction

Physical activity causes your body to release a variety of chemicals that will impact your mood almost instantly. This include endorphins, which are our bodies’ natural painkillers. When these are released, they are followed by dopamine, our bodies’ pleasure chemical, which essentially “rewards” us for good behaviour. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is also released and helps keep our mood stable to avoid jumping between emotional highs and lows. Finally, adrenaline is also released, helping to prevent anxiety, which can occur as a result of excess adrenaline being stored up.

Outdoor Benefits

While the chemical side of things could be achieved with many different forms of physical activity, there are some mental health benefits that can only be achieved by certain outdoor activities such as hiking. Firstly, spending more time in natural sunlight helps tune our circadian rhythm, often referred to as our bodies’ internal clock, which helps improve our sleeping pattern (as does the release of serotonin).

Furthermore, a 2015 study from Stanford University found that participants who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting were far less likely to dwell on unhelpful, negative thoughts than those who walked the same amount of time in an urban setting. Another study found that outdoor activities can help reduce the symptoms of ADD/ADHD in children.

Brain Development

In the long run, physical activity can help slow down the deterioration of our brain matter, which reduces the likelihood of developing cognitive conditions such as dementia. Historically, most of these studies have focused on gray matter, which is where most of the information in our brain is processed. These studies have shown that exercise can maintain and improve the quality of gray matter, thereby increasing our cognitive function.

Hiking is particularly well-suited for this, as it causes us to use key parts of our brain, such as the hippocampus for navigation, and prefrontal cortex to assess our current situation and surroundings.

More recent studies have also examined the effects of exercise on white brain matter, which connects the main areas of the brain and tends to shrink and break down with age. One such study found that walking in particular helped rejuvenate white matter, regardless of the age of the person in question.

The link between physical and mental health is well-documented, but we can clearly see that not all forms of exercise are equal. Hiking combines a variety of health benefits into a single activity, with effects that are both instantaneous and long-term. So whether you’re planning for your future or looking for something to do this weekend, hiking could prove to be your new feel-good activity.