Building bone densityHiking is weight-bearing exercise, which means your bones and muscles work harder against gravity. This helps your body build or maintain bone density, which is critically important as we age. Studies show bone density declines about one percent a year after age 40. Getting outdoors for a hike could have a positive impact in helping to slow down this loss. As an added bonus, hiking outdoors brings you a dose of vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, which we need for bone health.
Improve sleep qualityA long hike in nature can not only inspire a post-hike recovery nap, but recent research also suggests it may improve overall sleep quality. In a 2017 study published in the journal Current Biology, American researcher Kenneth Wright measured subjects’ sleep cycles before and during a weekend camping trip. During the trip, when subjects were exposed to natural light only (no electronics), their melatonin levels increased and their internal clocks shifted earlier. The study suggests being around nature helps us shift to a natural sleep cycle.
Boost happinessPhysical exercise promotes the release of endorphins, a brain chemical that triggers positive feelings. Hiking, however, can improve our mood even more than a regular walk in the neighborhood. Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman assigned 60 people to either a 50-minute walk in the woods or a walk along paved roads. Results showed that the nature-walkers experienced less anxiety and rumination, as well as more positive emotions, than the urban walkers. Want some happiness extra credit? Hike with a friend or two. Social interaction, especially with people with whom you have a strong bond, is an important ingredient for happiness and well-being.
Combat depressionThat vitamin D from the sunny outdoors that’s so essential for bone health also combats depression. Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at St Joseph’s Hospital in Ontario, Canada, reviewed 14 studies that included more than 31,000 total participants to determine a correlation between depression and vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency symptoms include fatigue, frequent illnesses, slow wound healing, bone and/or muscle pain, and depression. Participants experienced substantial improvements in depression symptoms after receiving treatment for vitamin D deficiency. In an expanded study, Bratman and his colleagues found that subjects who walked in nature for 90 minutes had increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression and anxiety when deactivated. The finding suggests hiking in nature positively impacts mood.
Social supportExercise is already known to have many benefits for mental health, but a recent study found the positive influence joining a group to workout can have on reaching goals. And the US National Institutes of Health reviewed various studies that connect the benefits of social support to improved health and well-being. Regular nature hikes strengthen our heart, lungs and muscles, as well as our mind. And going with friends can also reap healthy benefits.
So, the next time you reach the top of a hill at the end of a dirt path, pause to admire the view and appreciate all you’re doing for your health and happiness.
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