How Hiking Helps Your Brain | Hikers University

Research has proven that exercising is beneficial for both the human body and mind. If you, too, are wondering how hiking helps your brain, we've got you covered.

Hiking is a sport we all know and love. Those who have tried it swear that it is one of the best ways to get their body moving and heart pumping. However, its impact on the human mind wasn't quite talked about as often.

Researchers at Standford University have proven that frequent hiking helps boost mood, balance serotonin levels, and trigger regions of the brain that impact our well-being in more ways than one .

While you may think that the benefits of hiking on cognitive health end there, the list is just beginning. Only recently, advanced science has started comprehending the complex functioning of the human brain and how its health indirectly affects the entire body's well-being.

Many well-known researchers and psychologists have backed this claim, including world-renowned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. In his book, "Successful Aging," Levitin states that activities like hiking significantly better the human mind and delay cognitive decline. Here, we have compiled a list of a few of the many advantages that hiking can have on your physical and mental health.

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The Impact of Hiking on the Brain

The brain is the largest and most complex organ of the human body. It comprises three central regions that work closely with one another to govern different functions throughout the body. They absorb stimuli from the surrounding environment, relay the information and thus, make executive decisions. Needless to say, when these connections within the brain weaken, every organ and system within our body suffers. Hiking strengthens the brain, improving overall function and keeping it healthy in the long run. A few ways hiking benefits the brain are listed below:

Activates The Hippocampus

While all forms of exercise and training help keep the body and heart-healthy, the advantages of hiking go far beyond physical health. Hiking combines the benefits of physical movement with the tranquility of being out and about in nature. Hiking requires us to navigate nature's trails and deal with an environment that is entirely unpredictable. From dirt and mud, overhanging branches and weather changes to hidden obstacles, and wild animals, there are multiple things that hikers encounter on their trail. Therefore, hikers must make adjustments to their route as they move along. The constant need to evaluate and adapt to new circumstances is what exercises a region of the brain called the 'Hippocampus.'

The hippocampus is an integral part of the limbic system and the region where new episodic memories are formed and later transferred to long-term storage. It also helps in spatial orientation and navigation and serves as the site for neurogenesis, a vital process that produces new and healthier neurons from older stem cells. Frequent hiking deeply oxygenates the body and stimulates blood flow towards the brain, indirectly triggering and thoroughly activating the hippocampus. A healthy hippocampus means reduced atrophy and increased brain plasticity.

Hiking is one of the simplest ways to improve brain function and prevent cognitive decline. It is a low-intensity but high endurance-building exercise that positively affects the size of the hippocampus, a decrease in volume which has been associated with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease. Being surrounded by nature and trees oxygenates the body, which helps engage sensory neurons within the brain, forming rich, long-lasting memories.

Prevents Sensory Overload

Exercise is known to be a universal stress-buster. What makes hiking ten times better than other forms of exercise is that it is set outdoors in an entirely natural setting. It is an activity that doesn't require excessive planning, doesn't cost money, isn't time-consuming, and is accessible to everyone. From local gardens to city parks and mountain trails, hiking can be done anywhere at any time.

Exercising in nature is also far more beneficial than working out indoors as it helps us recover and detach from sensory overload. We live and work in a world ruled by computers and technology, which often pressures the brain into chronic mental fatigue characterized by loss of focus and difficulty paying attention. Hiking and breathing in nature help the mind calm down, de-stress, and detach from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

In a recent study, scientists further investigated how urbanization has led to a further increase in depression and anxiety. They conducted research that proved that hiking in a natural environment substantially decreases rumination and obsessive, negative thoughts. The study collected data from two groups of hikers, one group that hiked through an urban environment and another that hiked through a natural environment. Individuals who chose to hike in nature displayed reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is linked to the onset of several mental disorders. They showed lower levels of anxiety and overthinking and returned feeling much more energized. In contrast, the other group of hikers didn't enjoy the same benefits.

Another research conducted by Professor Craig Anderson has shown that being in nature encourages feelings of gratitude, awe and appreciation. It is a state of wonder that makes us realise how small our existence is in this vast world. Awe is a powerful emotion that generates feelings of empathy and generosity, making one realize the inherent value and meaning of life.

Strengthens The Amygdala And Basal Ganglia

Apart from the hippocampus, two more brain regions show significant positive growth through frequent hiking. These include the amygdala and the Basal ganglia.

Amygdala is responsible for producing feelings of overwhelming rush like anxiety, fear, and euphoria. It is the portion of the brain tasked with producing feelings of dread when approaching something frightening. The amygdala does so by triggering memories associated with past traumatic experiences and replicating them to warn the individual and help them reach safety. It also recognizes the emotions on other people's faces. Hiking increases the amygdala's ability to identify and process emotions, speeding neural pathways and increasing emotional stability. It helps increase focus, reduce distraction, and keeps unwanted symptoms of ADHD like hyperactivity at bay.

Another vital structure present within the central region of the brain is called the basal ganglia. It is a cluster of cells that control voluntary movement, eye movement, and cognitive and emotional functions. But the most critical role of basal ganglia and one that differentiates the human brain from that of other organisms is neuroplasticity. It is the power of the nervous to learn new habits, adapt to new places, and accommodate new demands and information. Hiking is the one exercise that pushes humans out of their comfort zone, thus stimulating the ganglia and increasing the brain's ability to hone new skills. It boosts brainpower, thereby increasing creativity and complex problem-solving skills. Two researchers, Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer conducted a study where they asked hikers to go backpacking for approximately four days. The hikers were asked to perform complex and mind-boggling tasks on their return. Results proved that those immersed on frequent hiking excursions had increased brain performance levels by 50%.

Produces Happy Chemicals

Hiking is a form of aerobic exercise that nourishes and replenishes our neurons, keeping them healthy and maintaining regular brain function. When breathing in nature, the human body generates chemicals called endorphins. These are the body's natural analgesics that interact with socialized receptors within the brain to reduce pain perception. They elevate your mood and trigger feelings of positivity and pleasure similar to that produced by a drug called morphine. With an increase in the body's endorphin production, the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol automatically goes down.

Endorphins also work in conjunction with another neurotransmitter called Dopamine, or the feel-good hormone known to produce feelings of joy. Dopamine is the part of our body's natural reward system and is produced every time we accomplish tasks required to survive, like eating, drinking, and reproduction. Hiking helps maintain the accurate balance of dopamine levels in the body, which keep us happy, motivated, alert, and focused. Low dopamine levels have been associated with depression, mood swings, memory loss, insomnia, a low sex drive, and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease, restless leg syndrome, and ADHD.

In simple words, hiking helps maintain the overall brain volume, health, and cognitive function. It delays the onset of atrophy and reduces one's chances of developing mental and neural disorders as one age.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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