How Hiking Changes Your Brain & Your Body


Learn about the six incredible ways that your state of mind and your body are improved by spending time hiking in nature.

What is “Forest Bathing”

In 1982, the Japanese coined the phrase, Shinrin-yoku which directly translated, means “taking in the forest”.

It promotes spending time outdoors, soaking up the environment with your sense of touch, sight, smell and sound.

What Does Science Say?

It’s no stretch of the imagination that experiencing nature will lift your spirits, but now science is backing this “Naturalist” concept and calling it medicine. The benefits have huge implications not just for the prevention of disease, but for recovery and overall improvement of both your physical and mental health.

Here are 6 scientific ways being in nature can improve your mental and physical health.

1. Slow Down to Smarten Up

In today’s fast paced life, it seems counter intuitive that slowing down actually speeds up brain function.

Slowing down feels a lot more like standing still. There is little we do in an average work day that is not rushed and urgent. We are constantly on the go, connected to multiple electronic devices, multitasking and managing overloaded schedules. It’s no wonder our stress levels are as insane as they are.

A study carried out by Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer revealed a remarkable 50% increase in problem solving tasks in test subjects after they completed a simple hike, technology free. (That means leaving the Hiking Camera behind)

City traffic and noise, as well as phone calls and emails, constantly demand our attention. This prevents us from focusing and deteriorates our cognitive abilities, resulting in poor decision making, bad memory and mental fatigue.

2. Forest Bathing Boosts Cancer Fighting Cells

Studies have found that a simple walk in a forest environment drastically increases your immune systems ability to fight disease.

Field tests were done in Japan, where 12 healthy men, age 37-55 years, had their blood taken before and after a forest walk. Tests were run over 3 days and the final results revealed a 50% increase in Natural Killer Cells, which are a type of white blood cell that fights infection and tumors in the body. This increase also links to an increased presence of anti-cancer proteins.

3. Positive Emotions Can Prolong Your Life

A study at Berkeley has directly linked positive emotions, like “Wonder” and “Amazement”, to a healthier body. Of the 200 test subjects included in the experiment, those exposed to the highest levels of positive emotions, specifically awe, had the lowest cytokine levels.

Cytokines are proteins that alert the immune system to work more vigorously. High levels of cytokine are linked with poor health and disease like depression, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimers.

Walking in nature or even just sitting quietly on a beautiful beach while experiencing the awe of a grand landscape and vast open spaces, sets off a chemical reaction that alters a person’s mood and decreases the level of cytokine.

These increased cytokine levels have a knock-on effect, and can block the production of hormones like serotonin and dopamine. This negatively impacts on memory, mood control, sleep and appetite.

4. Walk Away ADHD & Depression

Staggeringly large portions of the population, including children, take excessive amounts of medication to cope with tension, stress, high blood pressure, depression, fatigue and confusion.

The solution to theses ailments may be a lot simpler and safer than you think. A study carried out by Frances E Kup and Andrea Faber Taylor, found that children exposed to “green, outdoor activities” experience a significant reduction in symptoms of what the medical community refer to as “ADHD”.

In a separate study, adults who enjoyed a 90 minute walk in nature, showed vastly decreased activity in the area of the brain related to mental illness. The recent report, released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recorded largely reduced negative and obsessive thought patterns in the candidates. Test subjects who walked through city environments did not show any improvement.

5. Boost Brain Power & Prevent Alzheimer’s

Researches from the University of British Columbia found that exercise, walking in the forest or just spending time soaking up nature, improves activity in the hippocampal region of the brain. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and impacts on memory, in particular, long-term memory.

So, hiking, taking a forest walk or even just regularly sitting outside on a comfortable camping chair, can prevent memory loss and possibly, even the early onset of Alzhiemers. The resulting release of endorphins from the exercise will also improve your all-round health and happiness. It’s that simple.

6. Balance Blood Pressure & Stress Levels

The primary goal of hiking is generally, exercise and reaching a destination. With Shinrin-yoku, the focus is on slowing down and allowing yourself to absorb healing elements in your environment.

In a 2010 study conducted in 24 forests in Japan, it was found that participants blood pressure and heart rates dropped significantly while Forest Bathing. This was credited to a massive decrease in cortisol levels. Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone” is made by the adrenal glands. When overproduced, it affects your body’s ability to regulate metabolism and sugar levels.

If you power through a forest walk while checking your pace on your GPS enabled hiking watch, you seldom get the opportunity to notice the breeze on your skin, the colors and sights around you, or the calming sound of bird and rustling leaves. Slowing down may increase your walking time but add years to your life.

In Conclusion

The East has introduced us to healing practices like Yoga and Meditation and now they have opened our eyes to Forest Bathing. If you are a skeptic who seeks out science over spirituality, the research supports the overwhelming benefits of getting out into nature. Whether you’re wearing your favorite trail runners or even hiking with bare feet, the experience will change you.

Slowing down and taking a simple nature walk, is all that’s needed to feel more alive. So, get out there, boost your health and live a longer, happier life.

Article Resources

Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings
Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins
American Psychological Association
A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study
Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation
Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment
The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku

About the Author

Bianca has spent the last year travelling abroad with her husband and 7 year-old son. Her passion for travel and adventure is what motivates her to find a balance between healthy living and the hustle and bustle of city life.

Please follow and like us:
Visit Us

4 Comments on "How Hiking Changes Your Brain & Your Body"

  1. Hi Bianca, this is an awesome post. I love the part about hiking reducing depression. Getting outdoors helps us in so many ways. I need to appreciate the hikes in my own backyard a lot more.

  2. Beautiful article Bianca! Nature is by far the best therapy 🙂

  3. Really interesting research Bianca. Being in nature really helps my mood and is so important for children but I had no idea how much science there was behind it in helping certain conditions. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I completely agree with this post! Spending time in nature is an amazing thing!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.