The interconnectedness of mind, body and soul is a universal truth, yet a truth that is often lost in today’s compartmentalized society. Hiking is an easy way to reconnect all aspects of the self with nature, and doing so simply feels good. Scientists have discovered ways to explain exactly how and why hiking feels so good.
Going outdoors promotes mental health
Led by researchers at Stanford University, scientists explored the effect of a 90-minute nature walk compared to a stroll through a high-traffic urban environment on mentally healthy participants. Brain scans were performed to determine whether the part of the brain used in depression was activated, and questionnaires were administered to measure rumination, which is related to mental illness. Less depression and lower levels of rumination were seen in the nature walk group, but no change in neural activity or rumination was seen in the urban group.
The authors defined rumination as “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” In other words, rumination is the depressing negative self-talk that serves no healthy purpose. Going outdoors and being surrounded by nature help to decrease this maladaptive pattern. This finding is consistent with the fact that people who live outside of urban areas have better mental health.
Overcoming barriers to benefit from exercise
More recently, Julie Maier, M.S.W., and Shannon Jette, Ph.D., at the University of Maryland School of Public Health explored ways to promote nature-based activity for people with mental illness using the U.S. “Exercise Is Medicine” initiative in their May 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health. Similar initiatives have taken place in the United Kingdom and Australia, reportedly resulting in many benefits, including:
- Increased social interactions
- Empowerment and purpose
- Reductions in rumination
- Improved mood and sleep
- Formation of an identity not attached to mental illness
The “Exercise Is Medicine” initiative began in the U.S. in 2007 by the American Medical Association and the American College of Sports Medicine to encourage health care providers to prescribe exercise as part of the treatment for patients with mental illness. Patients who do increase their physical activity experience some benefits, but Maier and Jette also point out the barriers that mentally ill patients face in doing so. Some barriers they describe include the costs associated with athletics, social dynamics, and symptoms and medication side effects such as anxiety, fatigue and obesity. The authors suggest that proper funding and effort could overcome such barriers to “achieving this worthy goal.”
Anyone can benefit from hiking, especially those recovering from mental illness, substance use or dual diagnosis. Common sense and safety are important with hiking as with any other sport. Avoid using alcohol or drugs. Don’t hike alone. For those with chronic health conditions or who are taking psychotropic medication, consult your health care provider before attempting any strenuous activity.
Sovereign Health of California treats individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. We combine the most accurate and effective approaches to diagnostic assessment and treatment, providing optimal long-term outcomes. Comprehensive treatment includes regular exercise and outdoor experiences, such as hiking, yoga and equine therapy. Our ongoing continuing care program provides the support patients need to remain free from addiction and to recover from all of its consequences. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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