How to Hike Your Way to Better Brain Health

Tral Hike In Burnaby

It’s no secret that there are several health benefits to being outside, for both your mind and your body. Today we're tackling how nature hikes can change the health of your brain.

Living in Vancouver, we have an advantage when it comes to getting outside to be physically active. The abundance of local hiking trails and parks makes it easier to connect with nature while escaping the hustle and bustle of work and the city. 

Did you know that people living in the city have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders than their rural dwelling counterparts? “

Hiking in Nature is Good for Brain Health

Nature’s mysterious mood-boosting abilities serve to positively impact symptoms of stress and anxiety, but Gregory A. Miller, PhD, reminds us that “being in nature is ingrained in our DNA” and emphasizes the importance of this concept. There are undeniable mental health benefits associated with physical activity that are enhanced when exercising outdoors.

Being Outdoors Lowers Depression and Anxiety Symptoms

In 2015, Stanford researchers released data on the positive effects of nature in regards to depression risk. They found that participants who engaged in 90 minutes of walking in a natural area compared to those who did the same in an urban area showed a decrease in neural activation in the area of the brain associated with depression. This suggests that engaging in physical activity in rural settings is regarded differently by the brain and allows to body to manage depressive symptoms.

Exercising in nature has positive mental health benefits such as stress reduction by increasing release of norepinephrine, a hormone able to moderate the brain’s response to stress. Similarly, exercise itself functions to increase the release of endorphins which as a result of exercise have been shown to alleviate symptoms in clinically depressed individuals . When you couple the aforementioned benefits of nature with the outlined benefits of physical activity you get one powerful mood-boosting combination!

Regular Walking Reduces Risk for Dementia

People with cognitive impairment are at risk for dementia. In  a group of women aged 70-80 years old researchers at UBC found that aerobic "exercise is a promising strategy for combating cognitive decline by improving brain structure and function" (ten Brinke, et al., Br J Sports Med, April 2014). Walking regularly improves blood flow and increases the size of the brain's hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories. In 2009, Erickson et al at the University of Pittsburgh found that higher levels of aerobic fitness are associated with larger volume hippocampuses in the elderly.  

How to Find a Hike in Your Neighbourhood

It is clear that there are many benefits to taking a hike, but it’s equally important to be prepared before you hit the trails. Exploring the local trails doesn't have to be daunting; it can also be a family activity. 

Start by selecting trails of appropriate difficulty and duration. Make sure that you let people know where you are going and if possible go with someone.  There are many Vancouver hikes including urban parks like Burnaby's Central Park that have exercise stations.  Keep an eye out for our upcoming follow up blogs to tell you more about how to get started with hiking!

Mariah Mulligan

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