Go ahead and Google “benefits of walking”. After you’ve sifted through the 227,000,000 hits (that’s really the number) for that string, Google “benefits of being in nature”. After you’ve sifted through the 744,000,000 hits for that string, you might have an educated shot at forming a decent arsenal of defenses for your hiking obsession should anyone hassle you about it. Or I could just paraphrase the consensus for you. Hiking will lower your blood pressure, cortisol, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. It will clear your mind and reduce stress, keep you from getting obese, and damn near do your dishes. It’s the apple cider vinegar of the activity world. But we all know that and those blah blah blah reasons comprise zero percent of the real reasons any of us head out there. We go out there for our own weirdo reasons. But they’re hardly defensible to the general public. Here are my favorite 8 scientifically proven blah-blah-blah ways that a long walk in the woods is good for you, you know, in case you’re hassled about it (or more commonly, hassle yourself about it).
There’s a word. “Shinrin-yoku”. It’s a Japanese word that roughly translates to “forest bathing”. I’d love to stop the description right there, because the phrase “forest bathing” is seriously enough. But I promised to bring science in. Plants and trees, in their infinite wisdom, secrete a substance into the air called phytoncides that protect them from fungi and bacteria. When we breathe that substance into our own bodies, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor and virus-infected cells in our bodies. And, if you’re out there at the right time of year, you are also forest-bathing in tree sex, commonly called “pollen”. Pollen has been shown to increase capillary strength and inhibit atrophy of glands in humans. Killer cells and super-hero capillaries? Bathe me.
When you’re out in nature, you’re standing in art. As a matter of fact, you’ve skipped the middle man. Nature and it’s nuances are most frequently what art is trying to communicate to the civilization-bound. And you’re right there!!! So? Well let me tell you what art, or the beholding of beauty, does to the human brain. According to a well-documented study, art viewing stimulates the ventral striatum, a set of regions in the brain involved in drug addiction and gambling. It also activates the hypothalamus (associated with appetite regulation) and the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with risk-taking, impulse control, and detection of social rules). Simply put, it livens up the reward circuitry of the brain, increasing happiness and a mentally healthy state not bent on destructive behaviors.
- Because the earth isn’t flat.
I don’t know about you, but I have experientially confirmed that I was not evolved to walk upon flat concrete. 2600 miles of dirt and rock have not bothered me. But have me walk a 5 mile loop of sidewalk? Ouchhhhhhhh… When you’re walking on uneven surfaces, such as dirt and rocks, your feet are forced to strike the earth in a different place with nearly every step which helps prevent overuse injuries. You also usually step with a great deal more care and deliberateness in a natural quest to maintain balance, which reduces the impact and can do wonders for your coordination and agility. The official word for this is “proprioceptive”. Also, it’s harder. You burn more calories and attain the beloved “endorphin high” much more rapidly.
- Because germs and dirt and unpleasant temperatures.
Exposing oneself to temperatures outside of what’s comfortable does amazing things to the body’s circulation and adaptability. Exposing oneself to various germs and bacteria does the same to the immune system. In short, it’s not the healthiest choice to constantly princess your body through life.
- Because walking is boring.
Unless you’re walking through some abandoned mine fields in Bosnia, nothing ever happens out there. But this boring-ness has some incredible benefits for you and they’re called “meditation”. Since you still have a Google search window open, go ahead and Google “benefits of meditation”. Once you’ve sifted through the 27,700,000 hits offered, carefully selecting only the scientifically actually factually proven ones, you’ll be sold. Here’s the short list. Meditation lowers high blood pressure, reduces the levels of blood lactate which reduces anxiety levels, increases energy, boosts the immune system, and increases the body’s level of serotonin which simply makes you happen. I won’t even begin on the foo-foo reasons. But the reason I include meditation on the list of my favorite walking benefits, is because it’s a clear tool of meditating for those of us who do nothing but sit and think about what we forgot on our grocery list every time we try to sit down and “pay attention to our breathing”. It happens to a lot of us. I’m going to throw caution to the wind and even say it happens to MOST of us, saving the very experienced. Walking keeps our bodies busy, and the rhythmic repetition of it lulls me into a trance damn near every time. The lack of stimuli empties my mind, which is then free to be filled with God, brilliance, and most importantly, silence.
We need natural daylight. Need it. Beyond our need to absorb Vitamin D and suppress the production of melatonin during the day, there have been studies that have concluded that we have non-visual retinal responses to light that mediate a number of neuroendocrine hormonal functions, which, in turn, regulate such mechanisms as pubescence, ovulation and a wide variety of daily rhythms. Ultraviolet radiation intensifies the enzymatic processes of metabolisms, increases hormone system activity, and improves the tone of the central nervous and muscular systems. And without it, well, SAD.
Hiking in nature benefits cognition, but I’m sure you already encountered that fact ad nauseum from your initial Google search (you did that, right?). But I bet you didn’t encounter this particular reason for the benefit. This reason has to do with attention and quality of attention of which we have two types, involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes. It is the directed attention that plays a prominent role in successful cognitive and emotional functioning, including the development and preservation of short-term memory. Natural environments only invoke involuntary attention modestly (as in “SQUIRREL”!) and allow directed-attention a chance to replenish. Doing this purposely is called “Attention Restorative Therapy”.
- Because it’s not all about YOU.
I think it’s true that, indeed, hiking in nature will turn you into a superhero. But life isn’t all about you. It’s about so many other things including you. One of those “things” is the preservation of what is beautiful and precious about existence. Not FOR us, but just because. What you love, you protect. Being out there offers very few other options than falling in love with the land. It smacks you while you were trying to worry about your bills and what your coworkers said. I suppose there a few that this doesn’t happen to, but my experience has been that it happens enough. It’s important. And I hope it happens to you.