Mental Health Benefits of Hiking
I have spent a lot of time talking about some of the physical benefits I have seen from hiking. My Fatman to Fitman series points to loss of body fat, weight, and being in better overall shape. One thing I haven’t touched on enough is the mental health benefits of hiking. Importantly, I am not a mental health professional and this will be anecdotal at best.
One of the most important aspects of being in nature is slow the rhythm, or unplug in today’s lingo. The world moves so fast these days and between work, home schooling, shopping trips, and Tik Tok challenges. Nature can only move you at the speed in which you allow. If you wade into a river and try to swim upstream, nature will come at you fast and hard. If you allow yourself to float with the water nature allows you to slow down your rhythm until you are in sync with it.
This is why so many people try to find trails or an area that is less crowded. The more people with you on a trail or hike the more the energy level rises. Now this is great if you are trying to climb a tall mountain or trail-run a marathon. But to really get to that essence of nature the smaller the group the better sometimes.
The fresh air and leaves swaying in the breeze have a way bringing your mind, body and soul back to the center. To often we are pulled in so many directions that we end up feeling like an old Stretch Armstrong toy when the elastic has worn out. Some times finding that center is all we need to improve our mental health.
My favorite part of The Calm is that you don’t always have to work that hard for it. It might be lying under a tree in the city park so all you see is sky and branches. It might be a picnic at a state park and it might come on mile nine into a hike when you finally separate yourself from all the others. Take a deep breath, slow the rhythm until it matches the world around you and pushes you right back to your center.
For those of you who need a bit more effort, hiking also offers the completely opposite reaction. Hiking can range from one of the easiest forms of exercise to one of the most physically demanding depending on what you are comfortable with.
Scientists say that strenuous exercise raises your endorphin levels. Endorphins are apparently the brain’s feel good suppliers. That amount of research seems like a lot of work so I decided to break it down this way.
Based on my extensive television and movie watching, the old times were a constant state of challenge. You could die from drinking the water, not drinking the water, something called consumption, dragons, swords and arrows, starvation, wait dragons….seriously! You also had to hunt lions and wild boar with a stick and a rock or farm without the benefit of machinery. Everyday you made it to the straw bed at night was a challenge. By contrast, in today’s world some of our toughest challenges are running a yellow light before it turns red and deciding if we want to eat the bacon that is two days past the “best by” date because the store is two miles away and the “going out sweats” are in the hamper.
Tying Mental Health Benefits of Hiking to Physical Benefits
Physical challenges now have to be engineered in the gym or by flipping tires or by making ropes look like a wave. Now take nature. Have you ever sat at the bottom of a 13,000 foot mountain and looked up and thought, “this sounds like a really good idea”? In the woods you can take your body to the brink. You can climb mountains, find lakes, come face to face with an animal that is bigger than you are. You can push your legs until they ache and protest every step.
When you finish and are standing on top of that 13,000 foot mountain looking down at where you started you know that you can beat the challenge. Even if you don’t make it the consolation prize is a few hours walking in the woods and hopefully you found The Calm along the way. It is important to feed these challenges from time to time in every day life. Routines are there to make us comfortable but they also can make us complacent. I know that I can finish that spreadsheet but I NEED to know if I can climb that mountain.
I think the last reason that I have found hiking to be great for the mental health is being lost in the wonder of it all.
The same mentality that took Columbus across a great ocean is what takes me to the trails. Now granted someone has always been somewhere that I am going, but I haven’t. That feeling when you start a hike and never know what you will see at the end makes for a great adventure.
Wonder is missing in the world of adulthood. On a good day you might decide to take a different side street on the way to get ice cream and feel like Lewis and Clark discovering a new route. Routine becomes a safety net to get us through the day.
Wonder still lives on the trail. While you aren’t discovering untouched land your mind has that same exploration drive of seeing new beauty with each step. The reward is ending up in a place that only a few people on this earth can say they have been. That drive for exploration and to let your mind see a new section of the world can’t be denied.
Mental Health Benefits of Hiking with Imagination
Wonder and awe need to be a part of life. Remember the astonishment as a child when you saw your first snow or first campfire? That excitement of the first R rated movie? Now when was the last time that you had that feeling? I thought I had it when I tried kale for the first time but turns out it was just heartburn.
Wonder can’t be manufactured in a gym like The Challenge. You aren’t even sure you were missing it until you find yourself in a place that is so remote and beautiful that you don’t think it could get any better. Then around the next bend on the trail it gets even better. Soon you are filled with Wonder. Wonder activates that special section in your mind. It makes you realize that the monotony that felt like a weighted blanket was more like a ball and chain. It opens you up to new experiences like a child learning something for the first time. Or your parents finding Facebook. It makes you feel like a giant while standing humbly so small in a forest of possibilities.
How Hiking has Benefited my Mental Health
I was lost at the beginning of my hiking journey and had suffered a long term injury at work. After losing my job the pandemic came. It was like a one-two punch to the (ample) gut. I was taking online classes and looking for jobs that just weren’t there. One can only refresh the Indeed screen so many times before confidence, motivation and drive are crushed. Then I went on my first hike in awhile.
I was in a tough spot mentally before I took those first steps on the dirt and I can honestly say that the trails have changed me. Some hikes it is finding The Calm to center me and turn chaos into order. Other hikes it is The Challenge and pushing myself physically until I have nothing left to give and knowing I have accomplished all I could. Mostly for me it is about The Wonder. I will close my eyes and imagine the most beautiful scene I can think of and nature will respond with even more…but without dragons!
If you are struggling with mental health like so many are these days, please, please, please seek out professional help. If hiking works for you like it did for me that is great but if not, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
More from Fatman
If you liked this post make sure you check out my Thoughts page were you can see such gems as “Screw it, I’m trying“, “Hiking alone not Lonely Hiking“, “Bad Days and Bidets” and all of my “Fatman to Fitman” series.
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