May 05, 2017 | DR. SCOTT D. ROSE, SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR
Hikers find many reasons to explore the wilderness. It’s a way to escape the stresses of urban life and a favorite way to stay in shape – not to mention an excellent chance to connect with family and friends.
Whether for an hourlong walk through a park or a rigorous several-day trek in the mountains, your mind is clearer and rejuvenated at the end of a hike. Stress melts away. You’re better able to focus your thoughts and those thoughts come and go more freely. Thoughts focus more on the moment and less on the regimented multitasking process of modern life. Research supports that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable changes in the body, making people smarter, happier and healthier. The naturalist John Muir was an early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. He once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Researchers Davis Strayer and the Ashleys have designed experiments hypothesizing that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable effects on the brain, allowing you to think more clearly, focus more acutely and perform to your maximum cognitive ability. And the longer you are exposed — up to a point — the smarter you get. Thanks to Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan for her article bringing this subject to light in the May 12, 2015 edition of Backpacker magazine, which outlines her participation in these nature exposure experiments. Through strict testing of groups going out into the wilderness, the research team collected baseline data, including cognitive data. These tests were repeated after time spent in the wilderness. Results showed that spending time outdoors increases attention spans and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50 percent.
The authors of the study point out that the results might have as much to do with unplugging from technology as they do spending time outside. “This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving,” Strayer says. Strayer and others are at the front of what’s called environmental neuroscience, a field within the field of environmental psychology, which considers the relationships between people and their physical worlds. Environmental neuroscience narrows in on how one’s surroundings affect the way the brain works.
Something about being in the wilderness appears to cause physiological changes: the release of certain hormones, maybe, or the switch of activity from one brain region to another. The brain is divided into regions, each of which takes the lead in a different set of tasks. Some regions handle the basics, others oversee more complicated functions, but the frontal lobe is the most important of the whole operation. This region, situated in the front quarter of the brain, is used for advanced thinking.
Strayer and others hypothesize that this “caught up in the moment” effect may be a big part of why nature is so refreshing for the brain. In modern life, few of us are able to enjoy focusing on only what is right in front of us. That sort of divided thinking doesn’t do the brain any favors. It is taxing to the frontal lobe function. It happens whenever the attention is switched from one task to another and it even happens involuntarily when an attention-grabbing signal intrudes on your consciousness — flashing lights, ringing cellphones, blaring horns. Increasingly, however, we do this to our brains on purpose through the use of technology. Getting outdoors in nature might help offset those negatives and give the frontal lobe a rest.
Hiking can also help with depression and feeling better about ones self. The exercise required and the fitness gained are known as “feed-forward motivation,” a term that expresses the idea that if a result is favorable enough, or the payout is such that the energy investment is worth the output — and you are willing and wanting to do the same or more — then you likely will continue the activity.
Hiking enjoys widespread appeal, particularly in the outdoors-loving Northwest. One organization to know and love is The Washington Trails Association (wta.org). The WTA is the nation’s largest state-based hiking nonprofit organization and serves as the voice for hikers in Washington.
WTA Members protect hiking trails and wildlands, take volunteers out to maintain trails, and promote hiking as a healthful, enjoyable way to explore the outdoors. Joining the WTA is an excellent way to support the Washington trail system and stay informed through its website and periodical, and to stay motivated to hit the trails.
Do you want to try hiking but don’t know where to start? The first step is ensuring you are physically ready for the challenges. A good training routine can increase your overall fitness and get your body tuned for hiking. You’ll need the appropriate footwear, clothing and gear.
Packing the “10 essentials” and a first-aid kit whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit. The 10 essentials are: Navigation (map and compass); sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen); insulation (extra clothing); illumination (headlamp/flashlight); first-aid supplies; fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles); repair kit and tools; nutrition (extra food); hydration (extra water); and emergency shelter (space blanket.)
If you can walk, hiking is easy. Really! If you’re a novice, contact associations such as the WTA — it lists nearly 3,500 hikes on its website — and the Mountaineers (seattlefoundation.org), two organizations with resources for both beginners and pros.
With hiking, don’t be so focused on the destination that you miss the journey along the way. Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, said, “Being in nature is ingrained in our DNA, and we sometimes forget that. John Muir urged us to head for the mountains, where “the winds will blow their own freshness into you.” When on the trail, stress melts away and you exit the trail feeling great. Get out in nature. Take a hike!