Hiking and Mental Health
A recent review of numerous scientific studies shows that physical exercise in the natural environment can improve our mental health in a variety of ways. Activities such as hiking, snow sports, surfing and outdoor climbing can reduce negative mood states, increase positive psychological experiences, improve self esteem, and contribute to psychologically healthy ageing.
As a keen hiker myself I can relate to many of the positive experiences people report, such as (quoting from that review): “pleasure and enjoyment, meditation, independence, basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness, experiences of flow, comfort and intense emotions, enhanced feeling of body, discovering the pleasure of achievement, vital strength and a higher will to live…, and… an intense nature experience” (page 7).
Hiking has become a mild obsession for me nowadays, and after reading this study I had a think about why I enjoy it so much. Below are the results of my musings…
I’m a visual person, and like to look at beautiful things. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that one of the major reasons I hike is for the views. I’m particularly enamoured by rugged mountain landscapes, but pretty much anything natural is beautiful to me.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”Jack Kerouac
This is my favourite hiking quote, and I’ve posted it on the homepage of my blog. Of course, the author Jack Kerouac has a more general point to make. He is urging us to live a life of memorable experiences, experiences that will contribute to a satisfying sense of a life well lived.
I squeeze extra reminiscence from my hikes by taking lots of photos. I go back over these for my blog, and to post on social media. Sometimes when I’m bored or stressed I’ll open up my blog and look over photos from past walks, which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling on the inside. And then I spend some time thinking about my next big walk.
I do most hiking with my wife Sophia. By hiking together, Sophia and I strengthen our relationship through shared values and shared experience. I also like to share the photos I take of my walks on social media, and here on my blog. In this way I have an audience of sorts for these special moments.
I like to use my legs. When I was younger I used to play a lot of sports that involved running, and as a child I enjoyed ‘fell walking’ with my father in England’s Lake District, and in North Wales. Now that I’m older I mostly stick to walking, both for pleasure, and to get around town. I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed I feel it in my legs. There’s a muscle tension there that needs releasing. And my work is pretty sedentary. So hiking gives my legs a proper work out, energises me, releases tension, and helps me get out of my head and into my body.
Working up the motivation to go on a hike can sometimes be hard: there’s usually quite a bit of preparation and driving to do before the first step is taken. But I almost never regret going. And at the end of the day I feel I have achieved something worthwhile with my spare time. And the more I hike the longer my hikes seem to get, in a never ending quest to reach more remote places and feast my eyes upon the scenery there. Summiting a mountain is probably the best feeling, as this combines a clearly definable goal with excellent views.
I generally don’t like showing off my achievements, but if I’m honest my whole blogging and social media sharing is an exercise in showing off: the places I’ve walked to, and the sights I’ve seen. But it’s a wholesome kind of showing off… right???
As a relevant aside, people suffering depression often get trapped in a so called lethargy cycle. Lacking energy and motivation, a depressed person may gradually withdraw from life. By doing less they reduce the opportunities for life to reward them. This feeds into the depressed mood, and hence causes further withdrawal and isolation.
An evidence based treatment for depression aims to reverse this cycle by purposefully planning activities that are likely to reward someone with a sense of pleasure or accomplishment. For many people, hiking and other outdoor pursuits will tick both of these boxes.
Communing With Nature
Back in 2015, my wife and I picked up a lone female hitchhiker on our way to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park in New Zealand. This person was Miriam Lancewood, and we learned that she had been living in the wilds of New Zealand for over four years. She eventually wrote a book about this. Although mostly a memoir, her book is also a compelling thesis. She argues that disconnection from nature has diminished us all, and we should aim to get back to a simpler way of living. Hiking is my way of doing this in small doses, without having to give up electricity or the comforts of indoor plumbing.
There’s no doubt that since I began regular hiking in 2006 I have come to think of myself as a ‘hiker’, and more broadly as a person who walks a lot. I spend increasing amounts of time doing it, and sharing my hiking experiences on the internet. In this time I also had what could be described as a mid-life crisis, culminating in a major career change. Having sorted out what I do 9 to 5, and also in my spare time, I now feel secure and confident in who I am.
There are many things that contribute towards a helpful self identity though, and not least amongst these are the social groupings we belong to (here’s an interesting podcast on the topic). Hiking and other outdoor pursuits can help here as well though: there are clubs we can join, we can hike with friends, and participate in online communities of like minded people.
So what are you waiting for? Climb that goddamn mountain!
Edward Hathway is a clinical psychologist and enthusiastic hiker. He feels a bit silly writing about himself in the third person, but this is how these things are done.