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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 November 21, 2019

              7 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Workout

              7 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Workout

              Maybe you like going on walks in your neighborhood or hiking in the park, taking in the sights and sounds of nature. Or, perhaps you like to push yourself with spin classes and work up a real sweat. It could be that basketball at a local recreation league is your thing. And even though you enjoy these activities and you like the way you feel when you are doing them, somehow lately, you haven’t been able to muster up the energy to participate.

              There’s a “catch-22” that often happens when you’re wanting to work out, but you are not in the mood. Working out will boost your mood[1] and make you feel better, but because of your current mood, you don’t want to work out. Does this conundrum sound familiar?

              Anyone can get stuck in this rut from time to time. It could be that work has been taking too much out of you, or your family and personal commitments are eating up a lot of your time and energy. You’ve got to find a way to break out of this cycle. Getting your groove back requires finding a way to getting back to working out; you need a way to get started again.

              How can you get started? Use one of the following hacks to get you back on track. Find one or two of the ideas on this list that speak to you and that you think you can easily implement. Once you get your workout mojo back, you’ll be surprised at not only how much better you can feel in a short amount of time, but how much better everything will seem.

              Here are 7 ways to motivate yourself to work out:

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              1. Don’t Get Sucked into the Black Hole of the Couch

              As soon as you come in the door from work, get your workout clothes on and hit the door. If you sit down on the comfy sofa, it will take more fortitude to get yourself going. Think of your sofa as quicksand and don’t get pulled into the trap.

              It’s a simple law of physics — Newton’s first law:[2] an object at rest tends to stay at rest; an object in motion tends to stay in motion. You can come nestle into the comfy couch after your workout. But first, while you’re in motion from your day, stay in motion and your get your workout in.

              2. Find an Accountability Partner

              Studies show that having an accountability partner greatly increases your exercise frequency and success.[3] Talk to some of your friends and find someone who is interested in your same schedule. Maybe you have a friend who would love to hike early morning before work, or maybe you know someone that would like to hit a dance class right after work ends. Knowing that you have to meet someone else will make you think twice about blowing off your workout.

              You don’t have to have all your workouts include your partner, but even if you meet this person once a week, that will give you a boost to want to keep your workout going on other days. If you really feel that you need an accountability partner all the time, then find 2-3 people and meet them 2-3 times a week.

              One caveat: if your accountability partner cancels on you, be prepared for that and keep to your schedule. Everyone has things come up every now and then, but if you find your partner is frequently trying to cancel or reschedule, you probably need to find a new partner.

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              3. Or, Make Yourself an Accountability Partner

              Commit to 30 days of an exercise plan. Look at your calendar and plan out which days and times you are going to work out, including what that workout will be. Allow yourself two “do-overs” for random life events or illness, but only two.

              For example, let’s say you have on your calendar that you are going to go to a spin class after work on a Tuesday, but a family member calls whose car broke down and you have to go assist. You will rearrange that date of your spin class and find a different date to put it on the calendar, but you only want to do that for necessary external life events. Hitting the snooze button because you woke up too tired isn’t a good excuse.

              If you can stick to 30 days of this plan, it should feel more like a habit and be simpler going forward as you reap the benefits of feeling better, mood boost, and more energy.

              4. Integrate Some Mini-Movement into Your Day

              If you go into work and sit at a desk most of the day, it will feel good to get out and move your muscles afterwards. But sometimes it seems difficult to get out of that sedentary rut. One solution is staying in touch with your body all throughout the day.

              Set a few timers on your phone during the day, and when they go off, take a few minutes to do different physical movements. Stretching, doing forward bends or side bends are some ideas. You can stand against the wall and “peel” off of it, feeling each vertebra and releasing your lower back.Take off your shoes and wiggle your toes around. Do calf raises, standing up and lifting your heels up and down.

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              These small movements done 2-3 times throughout your workday may seem insignificant, but they will keep your attuned to your physical self a bit more, so that you will be more motivated to have some bigger, longer, “real” workout sessions. Think of them as appetizers and your workout is the big meal.

              5. Eat Something Fresh

              Speaking of big meal, what we eat and drink is related to how we feel. So if you’re not eating particularly well these days, commit to at least eating one fresh item daily. Maybe you have an apple as an afternoon snack. Perhaps you fix a nice salad to go along with your dinner.

              Sometimes, we’re so busy on the run that we don’t realize we’ve not been eating as fresh as we’d like. By making the conscious choice to seek out some fresh food, you’re taking care of yourself which in turn will make you think about those same kinds of choices when it comes to exercise. Another benefit is that if you’re eating well, you may feel “lighter” and have more energy to work out.

              6. Create an Alter Ego

              It may sound kind of crazy at first, but employing the use of an alter ego can be a great way to break out of a habit or create some life changes you desire. In his book The Alter Ego Effect, Todd Herman illustrates how an Alter Ego is a mental trick to improve your life. Many famous entertainers have used alter egos to overcome stage fright.

              How could this work for you? You may be too tired to work out at the end of the day, but your alter ego isn’t. Let’s say you create a character named “Ironman.” Sure, when you come in from a long day at work, you can talk yourself into wanting to relax on the couch. But Ironman doesn’t feel that way — he’s ready to throw on his sneakers and go for a run!

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              7. Water, Water Everywhere

              Sometimes the simplest rules are the most important. We all know we are supposed to be hydrated throughout the day. But if you’re busy all day at work, and you’ve nursed a big tumbler of coffee all morning, suddenly it might be early afternoon and you realize you haven’t had any water today.

              Drinking water boosts mood and decreases fatigue.[4] These two factors will help you in your quest to find the motivation for your workout.

              Make sure you’re getting your water intake all throughout the day, and if you’ve had coffee, drink some extra water to counteract the dehydrating effect of it.

              Final Thoughts

              So, how are you planning to get going this week? Go pour yourself a big glass of water, get out your calendar, and think about what types of workouts you want to do.

              Whether you call a friend and ask him/her to be an accountability partner, or whether you sketch out an alter ego for yourself so you can harness your power, you can use a hack to get you back on the track of being motivated to work out.

              You know how good you feel when you do, so give yourself that gift. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow — go get your sneakers on!

              Featured photo credit: Jonathan Borba via unsplash.com

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