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Doctors Tell Us How Hiking Can Change Our Brains

Doctors Tell Us How Hiking Can Change Our Brains

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves,” wrote John Muir in Our National Parks. Clearly, John Muir understood the intrinsic value of spending time in nature.

Along with Muir, many of us recognize that hiking in nature is good for the body, mind, and soul. Walking through the woods while observing colorful birds and foliage, smelling the aroma of spruce and pine trees, and listening to a soothing running stream simply clear our mind and make us feel good. Lucky for us, doctors agree. Study after study shows there are many mental health benefits to spending time hiking in nature.

Hiking in Nature Reduces Rumination

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    Those who ruminate or focus too much on negative thoughts about themselves can exhibit anxiety, depression, and other issues, such as binge eating or post traumatic stress disorder. In a recent study, researchers investigated whether spending time in nature affects rumination, and they found that hiking in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts.

    In this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through an urban environment and a nature environment. They found that those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment, which took place in a grassland near Stanford University, reported lower levels of rumination and also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with mental illness. Those who walked through an urban environment didn’t enjoy these benefits.

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    These researchers indicate that our world is becoming more and more urban and that urbanization is linked to depression and other forms of mental illness. Visibly, simply removing us from an urban environment to spend time outdoors where there are fewer mental stressors, less noise, and fewer distractions can be advantageous for our mental health.

    Hiking While Disconnecting from Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving

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      According to a study by Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer, creative problem solving can be improved by disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. In this study, participants hiked while backpacking in nature for approximately four days and they were prohibited from using technology. They were asked to perform tasks requiring creativity and complex problem solving. They found that those immersed in the hiking excursions had increased performance on problem-solving tasks by 50 percent.

      Researchers indicate that technology and the noise of urban areas constantly demand our attention and disturb us from focusing, which taxes our cognitive functions. Thus, when we’re feeling overwhelmed from the stressors of urban life and being plugged-in 24/7, nature hikes can be strong medicine. They reduce our mental fatigue, soothe our minds, and help us think creatively.

      Hiking Outdoors Can Improve ADHD in Children

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        Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder among children. Those with ADHD generally have trouble staying focused, are easily distracted, exhibit hyperactivity, and have difficulty controlling impulses.

        Raising children with ADHD can be perplexing for parents. Nonetheless, great news has emerged from the medical and scientific world. In a study conducted by Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, researchers found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduced their ADHD symptoms. Thus, according to this study, the benefits of exposure to nature can extend to anyone with inattention and impulsivity.

        Doctors conclude that simple changes that involve green activities or settings can improve attention. For example, increasing exposure to a window seat with a green view, participating in an afternoon nature hike, or simply playing ball in the park can ease unwanted ADHD symptoms.

        Hiking in Nature is Great Exercise, Which Boosts Brainpower

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          We’ve all heard the expression healthy body, healthy mind. Hiking outdoors is an excellent form of exercise and it can burn 400 to 700 calories an hour, depending on the difficulty of the hike. An added benefit is that hiking isn’t as hard on our joints as other forms of exercise, such as running. Also, it’s proven that those who exercise outside are more likely to stick to their exercise programs, which makes hiking an excellent choice for those hoping to integrate exercise into their daily lives.

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          The mind and body are naturally connected. Exercise helps to keep our brain cells nourished and healthy. In fact, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia, aerobic exercise might improve memory and cognitive ability. In the study, they found that aerobic exercise increased the hippocampal volume in older women. The hippocampus is a part of brain associated with spatial and episodic memory.

          Not only does exercise improve cognitive ability and possibly prevent cognitive decline as shown by the study, it can also reduce stress and anxiety, boost self esteem, and release endorphins (feel-good hormones). It’s astonishing that a physical activity as simple and low-cost as hiking can provide so many mental health benefits.

          Hiking is Now Prescribed by Doctors

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            Has your doctor ever told you to “take a hike?” This isn’t a phrase that we typically want to hear, especially from our doctors, but they actually have our wellbeing in mind. Progressive doctors are now aware that people who spend time in nature enjoy less stress and better physical health.

            According to WebMD, more and more doctors are writing “nature prescriptions” or recommending “ecotherapy” to reduce anxiety, improve stress levels, and to curb depression. Plus, nature prescriptions are becoming more accepted by traditional health care providers as more research shows the benefits of exercising and spending time in nature.

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            The state of California is traditionally one of the more progressive states in the area of alternative health. As an example, the Institute at the Golden Gate has been leading the charge to promote ecotherapy through its “Healthy Parks Healthy People (HPHP)” initiative. In this program, community organizations work with health professionals to improve the health of their parks, and to promote the use of parks as a passageway to health for the people who use them.

            How Do You Get Started with Hiking?

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              Fortunately, hiking is one of the easiest and least-expensive sports to get involved in, and it’s fun and beneficial for the whole family. If you’re just getting started, don’t plan a Colorado 14er or to hike the Appalachian Trail. You can start small. Check out local short hiking trails and work your way up to a safe and comfortable distance. You can find trail maps online and there are smartphone apps to help you find the best trails for your level and interests.

              Ensure you wear sturdy hiking shoes that are appropriate for the terrain. Consider using trekking poles, which reduce stress on your knees, increase your speed, and improve your stability. Layer clothing as necessary for the weather and wear breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics such as silk, polypropylene, wool, and fleece to reduce sweat and stay warm. Use sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect you from the sun. Stay hydrated and have fun!

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              Published on March 8, 2019

              How Adding Flow Yoga to Your Workout Routine Boosts Your Gains

              How Adding Flow Yoga to Your Workout Routine Boosts Your Gains

              When we fall into a workout routine, our moves become automatic, and the body quickly adapts. This is called muscle memory.[1] While teaching your body how to properly execute squats, push-ups, or crunches is a benefit, overly relying on these moves to consistently grow gains won’t yield the kind of results you want. That’s because the muscles work in the same way every time.

              Simply put, they’re not being “surprised,” so they get lazy.

              Supplementing your routine with flow yoga is one way of surprising your muscles, especially if you are new to the yoga practice and have never tried the postures. It’s like taking a new road home when you drive, deviating from your usual route. Science has found that by doing so, you’re creating new neuropathways in your brain.[2] The same is done in your muscles when you try a new routine.

              How is this done? Let’s dive right into it.

              How Flow Yoga Boost Your Gains in Your Workout Routine

              Think about your current workouts:

              If you lift weights, you rely on external tools to engage your various muscle groups. Over time, your shoulders, legs, or biceps will come to expect the weighted plates or dumbbells, in the repetitive sequences that you remember.

              In flow yoga, we use the body as the weight. Add gravity and hundreds of different postures and combinations, and you have a workout that uses the same muscle groups, but in many different ways.

              A pose such as plank is a full-body workout, with every muscle engaged to keep the body in one long line. While it’s a stationary pose, it requires muscle control and activation, with no room for passivity.

                A Flow sequence, on the other hand, requires your muscle to switch from one pose to another swiftly, providing you with a more balanced and wholesome use of your major muscle groups.

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                Not only do these poses and routines re-energize the body in a refreshing way, they also allow you to learn something new, which is powerful for the mind.

                Bottom line? Complementing your exercise regimen with flow yoga is like hitting the shuffle button on your workouts, using your muscles in ways that “surprise” them, which in turn boost their growth and performance.

                Energizing Flow Yoga with Added Cardio

                Flow yoga is also known as “Vinyasa.”[3] In Sanskrit – the sacred language of the practice and its Indian roots – Vinyasa is roughly translated to “one breath, one movement.”

                This guideline, first and foremost, enhances your breathing, and teaches you how to go from our typical shallow, chest-only breathing, to a more deeper, belly-chest breath that uses the entire lung system.

                Not only is this beneficial for a myriad of healthcare reasons (combat allergies, eliminate toxins, reduce stress, ease anxiety), it also greatly impacts our muscles,[4] and therefore our workout.

                Flooding your muscles with rich oxygen will only keep them healthy, while the cardio benefit will get you warmed up to take on the more challenging postures in a flow yoga class. This prevents injuries and cramping.

                The best example of energizing cardio in flow yoga is the Sun Salutation sequence. Each pose is completed on an inhale or an exhale, until the sequence is finished. One full sequence may be repeated several times, encouraging you to take fuller and deeper breaths. The cycles warm up and loosen the body and prepare the muscles for stationary poses that are held longer.

                Here’s how to do a Sun Salutation Flow:

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                Due to the Sun Salutations, the muscles are not thrown into a challenging workout, but rather primed and prepared with energizing breath.

                Why is this important, you ask? Because happy muscles are warmed-up muscles.

                The Best Thing About Flow Yoga

                The best thing about practicing flow yoga? You’re building strength and flexibility.

                Strength and flexibility are like the Mecca of a wholesome workout routine. Before we get into why this is important, let’s break these two down individually to see how they stand up on their own:

                Meet Strong Stan

                Strong Stan is at the gym, doing bicep curls with massive dumbbells. His muscles have peaked in size, and he proudly displays them.

                While he loves to lift weights, Strong Stan often skips stretching or warm-ups. He just doesn’t see how that could help him continue his muscle gains, so he jumps right into a heavy workout.

                While it’s not evident to a passerby, Stan’s muscles are hurting. Without sufficient flexibility or deliberate stretching, Stan’s muscles are shortening and getting tighter. This eventually leads to joint injuries,[5] because un-stretched muscles have limited range of motion.

                Big muscles are a sure indicator of strength, but here’s the kicker – choosing not to prioritize flexibility will keep them inherently at risk.

                Meet Flexible Fiona

                Flexible Fiona is in a flow yoga class, easing herself into a backbend.[6] She effortlessly gets into the pose, and “hangs” out there for a few breaths while the teacher cues the class.

                Even though the teacher instructs the students to engage their glutes and be mindful that this is an active pose, Flexible Fiona opts otherwise, and relaxes into the posture by sacrificing the strength she ought to be building.

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                To many in the class, Fiona’s execution of the backbend would be a success – maybe even something to envy. However, what Fiona doesn’t realize is that her excessive flexibility is actually a detriment to her joints.[7]

                Flexibility has been defined as the “absolute range of motion” by Tony Gummerson, Martial Arts instructor. For people who are naturally flexible, that line of absolute range is often blurry and, in practice, overlooked.

                It’s very easy for Fiona to go above and beyond her range of motion, since her flexibility parameters are much wider than what Strong Stan may experience in a similar pose.

                Because she doesn’t feel the stretch in the same degree of motion as other students in class, Fiona has to push the envelope of her flexibility. This puts too much pressure on the joints that are already overworked, and it overstretches the muscles that are now prone to tearing.

                Your goal is to create muscle and joint balance and wholeness.

                What Strong Stan and Flexible Fiona have in common is that they’re both missing vital pieces of muscle awareness.

                In Stan’s case, heavy and tight muscles crave flexibility. Without it, not only would Stan hit a plateau in his gains because of a sure injury, but he would miss out on having the lean and toned muscles that we all want to have.

                In Fiona’s case, her overstretched muscles are not getting a workout at all. Rather, her excessive flexibility is resting on her joints, which leads to definite injury.

                So what can you do? It’s quite simple.

                You have to give your muscles the opposite of what they’re used to.

                If you’re a Stan and hate stretching, focusing on your flexibility is key. You will lengthen your tight muscles, and you’ll create new muscle memory by practicing routines that are new to you and your muscle groups.

                If you’re a Fiona and hate strengthening, focusing on this priority is vital. Your muscles are used to being passive as you stretch, so shaking up the usual and putting them to work will not only keep you injury-free, but that much closer to the muscle gains you’ve been looking for.

                Fortunately, flow yoga is the whole package, and can be the one-stop-shop for both Stan and Fiona.

                  Final Thoughts

                  If you’re serious about using flow yoga to supplement your workout routine to boost gains, sign up for a class at your local gym or yoga studio. There are a number of styles of yoga to try, but as we’ve discussed in this article, the Vinyasa style is your best bet to complement a moderate exercise regimen.

                  Many studios offer beginner-style Vinyasa classes, where the instructor will explain the basics, and break down the sequences in a pace that is suitable for entry-level students. From here, the student can build upon their practice, and opt for more challenging, fast-paced classes, such as Power Flow or Ashtanga.

                  Working out is a lesson in teaching your muscles. The gains that we grow are the result of that experience, and it all comes down to conditioning our body in a way that is healthy, efficient, and balanced.

                  With a practice like flow yoga, we can offer supplemental training to our current regimen that will work our muscles in ways that are new, refreshing, and “surprising.” This method will keep our muscles toned and lean, as long as we prioritize the balance between strength and flexibility to ensure that we’re meeting both of these needs. Our muscle gains and body health depend on it.

                  More Resources About Yoga and Fitness

                  Featured photo credit: Edit Sztazics via unsplash.com

                  Reference

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