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Taking a Hike in Nature is Good for your Brain Health

While the old adage that a walk in nature is good for the soul, two separate studies have taken the belief a step further to find that it is also good for our mental health.
Environmental factors play a critical role in how we think and behave. In today’s society, with more than 50% of the population living in urban areas filled with intense technology, loud sounds, and a multitude of disruptive activities, our surroundings can play havoc with our energy and stress levels. Our lives have strayed far away from the calming, restorative natural ecosystems. In fact, they are almost foreign to us.

One study, conducted by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), found that backpackers who spent three days hiking had increased creativity and cognitive ability.

“Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that nature has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated executive attentional system which can become depleted with overuse. High levels of engagement with technology and multitasking place demands on executive attention to switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

ART suggests that interactions with nature help replenish depleted attentional resources. Natural environments contrast the harsh jarring interactions of our modern society – the loud sounds, the fast pace, the multitasking – with a gentler, softer fascination which allow the executive attentional system to replenish. In fact, studies found that taking a wilderness hike led to improvements in proof reading and performance on the backwards digit span task. Also exposure to nature may also engage the “default mode” network which emerging literature suggests is important for peak psychosocial health. The default mode can be disrupted by multimedia use but on a hike with exposure to natural stimuli, the mind is better able to enter a state of introspection to engage the default mode.

While it is unclear why, people who live in urban settings also tend to have higher incidence of mental illness and rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self, a known risk factor for mental illness.) Another study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.

“Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

Both studies suggest that there is still more work to be done, but these initial results can offer a viable alternative to restore brain function, provide stress relief or lift a dark mood. And the remedy may be as simple as putting on a pair of walking shoes and heading for the closest park or open space.

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