I woke up in a sweat at 5 am to the sound of cicadas singing. The jungle was slowly awakening as I climbed out of the mosquito net surrounding my bed. Slinging a pack across my shoulder and throwing on my Teva sandals, I left the bamboo hut under the first rays of sunlight. I ventured through the small town of Tonsai, Thailand, to the jungle trails. The heat and humidity were already strong, but I knew that if I waited any longer, I’d miss my chance.
I wove between giant ferns and tall rubber trees, hiking along a red dirt trail that would lead me to the limestone caves. When I got there, the stalactites were dripping with morning dew. I sat down, took a sip of water, and waited. Finally, I saw what I came for.
As I listened, I could hear the gibbons calling and moving among the trees. Branches cracked, and leaves fell like green snow among the ferns. The trees before me began to bend, and a mother gibbon clenching her fuzzy baby appeared with four more gibbons following. They congregated near the cave and happily munched on leaves and branches. I sat and watched them while trying to hide from their view.
When they left, I was in awe to have finally seen the wild gibbons I‘d heard so much about. Due to the influx of tourism, most of them had retreated deeper into the jungle away from the shoreline. But there were a handful of hiking trails maintained between beaches in the forest where some groups remained. It was a magical moment unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.
That day I felt immense gratitude and appreciation for the ability to experience such a natural sighting. It was the reset button I needed at the time.
Hiking provides us with strong physical and mental health benefits. You might be surprised at how transformative hiking can be both mentally and physically.
Mental Health Benefits
There are many proven mental health benefits through the power of connecting with nature. With mental illness and depression on the rise, spending time in nature can provide a decrease in depression and anxiety and an increase in creativity, self-esteem, sleep improvement, and brain function.
Decrease in Depression and Anxiety
As urbanization and disconnection from nature have grown dramatically, so have mental disorders such as depression. A study from Stanford researchers found quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Other studies have shown that nature can positively affect mood, memory, and lessen anxiety. Trees can help us feel less stressed, more restored, and even benefit our immune systems, according to some studies. Trees give off volatile essential oils called phytoncides that have antimicrobial properties. These are thought to positively affect our immune systems.
Spending time hiking in nature can increase creativity. Using two creativity influences, attention restoration (concentration) and mind wandering, results in one study were measured to see how nature affected a group of participants. These two influences increased, allowing the subjects to generate new ideas. Focusing on natural elements such as water or a winding trail can capture involuntary attention, allowing the directed form of attention to rest and recover. Because of this, some people can clear their minds of distracting thoughts or repetitive thought cycles while hiking and allow for new thoughts to enter.
It’s probably no surprise that setting and conquering physical goals can boost our self-esteem. We’ve all heard some version of the metaphor “the best view comes after the hardest climb,” referring to hard journeys that result in mountain-top experiences. Having an end destination on a challenging hike is the embodiment of a hard journey paying off!
Like many other forms of exercise, hiking might help you sleep better. Researchers don’t completely understand how physical activity affects sleep, but it is widely believed that exercise helps most people sleep better. Paired with the other mental health benefits listed, hiking can help set you up for a true night of rest.
Physical Health Benefits
The physical health benefits of hiking are abundant. You can experience increased muscular strength, balance, and cardiovascular fitness, among many other benefits from hiking.
Hiking helps build muscles in the legs that stabilize you as you move. Stepping over uneven terrain engages the core muscles to help you keep your balance. Moving uphill engages muscles in your lower body such as your calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes to propel you forward. As you move downhill, your core is engaged to stabilize you, your hip extensors are working, and your ankles are providing support. If you use hiking poles, you might also engage your biceps, latissimus dorsi (side muscles), pectorals, and triceps.
As mentioned before, your core muscles are engaged when hiking to help keep your balance. Moving over uneven terrain and stepping over obstacles helps to train your body through proprioception. This is our body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location without, say, thinking of the next movement we’re going to take! When we hike, we are looking out for obstacles and training our bodies to improve balance in the process.
Hiking is a great way to incorporate cardiovascular fitness through aerobic exercise.
Cardiovascular endurance measures how well your whole body can perform moderate or high-intensity exercises over a long period of time. Some common benefits of increased cardiovascular fitness include:
- Reduction in body weight and blood pressure
- Increase in exercise tolerance, heart, and lung health
- Decrease in the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke
No matter what reasons entice you to hike outdoors, know that the benefits of hiking are abundant. Take a deep breath, reset, and re-charge in nature. You might just be surprised by what you feel and find.
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