Are you feeling overwhelmed with work, relationships, and life? Go take a hike.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature can not only help with depression and anxiety but also lower our blood pressure, reduce our risk of diabetes, heart disease, asthma and more.
“Taking a hike and getting away from the grind and the hamster wheel of life helps people clear their minds and their bodies,” says Daniel Levi, LCPC, a mental health counselor at the Center for Holistic Medicine.
Although scientists aren’t sure exactly why taking a hike in the woods is beneficial — is it increased oxygen? a positive association with the color green? — the benefits to your mental health are well proven.
According to a 2015 study from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to an urban area, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. And an earlier study by the same researchers found that taking a 50-minute walk in a natural area vs. and urban area helped reduce levels of anxiety and rumination.
Similarly, a Japanese study at Chiba University found that when volunteers took a 15-minute walk in the woods vs. the city, they had a 16 percent drop in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure and a 4 percent drop in heart rate.
Levi says taking a hike in nature can help you on both a physical and emotional level. Here are 5 reasons why taking a hike is good for your anxiety.
- Exercise is Good For Your Brain
Doing any sort of physical exercise is important in maintaining proper brain functioning. Exercise increases blood flow to your brain and increases serotonin levels, which works like a natural antidepressant.“Sometimes I joke with my clients that they need 15 mg of exercise a day,” Levi says.Many health care professionals recommend doing 25 to 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio three times a week for optimal mental health — anything from hiking and biking to swimming, rowing, water aerobics and yoga. However, if you suffer from intense anxiety, Levi says it’s best to avoid any cardio workout that’s too intense because that can trigger a fight-or-flight response and actually increase your anxiety.
- Hiking Helps You Connect With Your Spirituality
While any cardio workout is good for your brain, finding a way to combine your workout with spending time in nature is even better because you will be able to slow your mind down and connect with your spiritual side.“The more a person connects with themselves spiritually, the better they feel,” he says. “When a person connects to their spiritual self they feel more grounded and clearer, and for many people nature has the effect of drawing them back to their inner root. Hiking in nature can help people hear their own inner voice and get clear about what needs to change and who they are.”Levi says when we feel anxious, we feel isolated and disconnected from others, and being in nature can make us feel more connected to the larger world, even when we’re alone. “The natural environment can bring us back to unity and harmony, helping us find our place here,” he says.In fact, when Levi was 16 he did a four-month backpacking trip in Utah and Colorado, and by the end, he says he never felt so clear about his own heart and mind. “I remember that they made us go to 24 hours solo,” he says. “Alone in the forest with nobody else around was scary but very awakening.”
- It’s Close… And Free
You don’t have to fly to Colorado or hike up a mountain to feel connected to nature; just head to the beach or a nearby forest preserve. “I’m surprised at how many people don’t know about the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve or the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve in Highwood,” Levi says. “You don’t have to drive all the way to Michigan to get back to nature.”
- It Helps You Let Go of Your Worries
Levi says by getting out of the house and away from social media and the hamster wheel of life, you can begin to be freed from the worries and thoughts that are in your mind.However, be careful to really make yourself present in the moment. Be sure to turn off your cell phone and make a conscious choice to let go of your worries for a few minutes.“One of my favorite spiritual teachers says, ‘You are where your thoughts are, so make sure your thoughts are where you want to be,’” Levi says. “Just because you’ve left the stressful environment doesn’t mean you’re not still there!”To get the maximum benefit from your hike, Levi recommends taking a deep breath and saying an intention out loud before you start. “Say something like, ‘I’m going to take 10 minutes to connect with myself.’”
- It Gives You Perspective
If you do get the chance to go on a more dramatic hike, there’s nothing quite like reaching a lookout point and peering down into the valley below. “When you hit one of those bigger peaks, it’s like ‘woah,’” Levi says. “You really feel a sense of accomplishment and it gives you a sense of perspective so you can really see the forest for the trees.”If you’re having trouble getting started, Levi recommends using the “Just Show Up” tool. If you can’t commit to taking a hike for 30-minutes three times a week, Levi suggests committing to going to the forest preserve or park, getting out of your car for 30 seconds, and then going home. He says those who do that for a week to 10 days will almost always find they can get started in building a regular exercise habit.“I’ve yet to see anyone come back and regret that they took the time to do so,” he says.
Interested in hiking? Join Daniel Levi’s new “Hike Off Your Anxiety Group” starting in mid-May. The group will go on hikes in a forest preserve near the Center for Holistic Medicine on weekday mornings. (Specific days and times TBD). Call 847-236-1701 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up!
Daniel Levi, LCPC, is a full-time psychotherapist at the Center for Holistic Medicine. He works with clients suffering from anxiety, depression, relationship problems and much more. He uses a cognitive approach, but also integrates many other techniques and modalities from a wide variety of therapies and spiritual traditions.