Especially autumn, while signaling the end of long summer days and steamy summer nights, brings with it its own beauty and wonder. The changing colors of the leaves and crisp, cool smell of autumn are just two reasons to throw on your favorite hoodie and head out onto the hiking trail, but did you know that there is bonafide research out there that shows how hiking can improve both physical and mental health?
It’s just common sense to consider how looking up from our phones, turning off the TV and shutting off our tablets allows us to connect with the world around us in a way unparalleled by what those bright screens can provide. Yet, researchers have found that unseasoned hikers who disconnected from technology and spent four days immersed in nature improved their performance on a creativity and problem-solving task by 50 percent. This is something that many right-brained, creative types likely already know, yet serves as a good reminder for left-brainers, such as myself, who may find themselves swept up in the minutiae of everyday details and struggle with seeing the bigger picture.
The health benefits of cardiovascular activity, in general, have long been documented, and hiking is no exception. What you may not know is that the outdoor activity can also improve recovery rates for cancer patients. In a study measuring oxidative stress in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer, it was found that those who engaged in long distance hiking trips had better antioxidative capacity in their blood over time, thought to aid in fighting off disease. Oxidative stress is thought to be an important factor in the onset, progression and recurrence of cancer. In order to investigate how it is influenced by physical activity, we measured oxidative stress and antioxidative capacity in 12 women with breast cancer and 6 men with prostate cancer, before and after long hiking trips.
Before the hike, the men had a ROS-concentration of 1.8±0.6 mM H2O2 and an aoC (antioxidative ) of 0.7±0.6 mM Trolox-equivalent (Tro), while the women had a ROS-concentration of 3.1±0.7 mM H2O2 and an aoC of 1.2±0.2 mM Tro. After the hike, women showed no significant change in ROS and a significant increase in aoC (1.3±0.2 mM Tro), while the ROS concentration in men increased significantly (2.1±0.3 mM H2O2) and their aoC decreased (0.25±0.1 mM Tro). After a regenerative phase, the ROS concentration of the men decreased to 1.7±0.4 mM H2O2 and their aoC recovered significantly (1.2±0.4 mM Tro), while the women presented no significant change in the concentration of H2O2 but showed an ulterior increase in antioxidant capacity (2.05±0.43 mM Tro).
From this data we conclude that physical training programs as for example long distance hiking trips can improve the aoC in the blood of Oncological patients. Being outdoors and exploring nature also feels wonderful—no scientific research is needed to confirm that fact. Yet, the implications of this phenomenon extend far beyond those feel-good breaths of fresh air. One study of a group of people who rated highly on hopelessness and depression scales and had attempted suicide at least once resulted in some pretty amazing outcomes. Mountain hiking, as an add-on therapy to other mental health care, showed dramatic improvements in depression and hopelessness. Just goes to show how Western approaches to mental health would do well to include more “alternative” therapies to improve individuals’ overall health.
If you are a novice hiker and interested in being more involved in the great outdoors, there’s no better time to start than right now. Especially with the milder weather and the beautiful scenery of the fall, now is the time to fully appreciate nature’s splendor. Many communities have parks and activities that may be underutilized. There may be fall hiking events, kids’ exploration activities and outdoor yoga in your area, to name a few possibilities. And, to make sure you are enjoying the outdoors with a small footprint, follow these Green Hiking Tips. Get out there and get hiking!
Green Hiking Tips
While most outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with the saying “Leave No Trace” and its “seven principles,” it might not be common knowledge for the recreational hiker. This concept highlights ways that hikers and adventurers can enjoy outdoor activities while causing as little adverse effects to the environment as possible. Here are some of the most important points from these principles and an examination of how they might affect the way we approach our relationships with the outdoors.
Stay on the trail
Our beaches are eroding at alarming rates. New Zealand alone has lost as much as 70 percent of its coastline in the last century. Some of this is of course due to natural environmental changes, but most of it stems from our interactions with the land.
Of course we want to get to the water as fast as possible, but leaving the clearly designated walkways are extremely hazardous. Domestic vegetation, such as marsh and dune grasses, help keep the sand from blowing away, and when we walk or run on it before it has taken root we prevent it from growing.
And this is not just a beach problem. Everything from hiking to off-trail mountain biking can have significant impacts on the natural world. A rule of thumb when you are visiting such fragile ecosystems is to always stay on designated paths. Coming equipped with the proper gear such as heavy-duty polarized sunglasses and flashlights will make sure you can see where you are stepping in all types of lighting conditions.
Curb, ahem, your waste
Remember, we all share the environment. Most of us know to reduce our waste and pick up any trash we leave behind, but have you thought about our natural waste? While some green publications might advise digging a small cat-hole for your fecal matter and other human wastes (four to ten inches deep and two hundred feet from any water supply, trail, or camping ground) there is no cleaner way to remove a dirty business than finding any one of the many environmentally friendly bags to remove your waste yourself.
Know the neighborhood
Now that we’ve covered waste, let’s talk about something else a bit dirty, Mating season. When heading out into nature, it’s important to recognize which animals you might encounter. Nature involves balance, and it is easy to throw off an animal’s natural cycles, especially during rutting seasons, when they tend to be skittish, aloof, shy, or easily angered. It’s best to leave an animal’s habitat alone during delicate seasons. Also, it’s always a good practice to avoid hydrating at the local water supply during dusk and dawn when most animals are more active.
At the campsite
There are plenty of places to tip up on “low impact camping,” but perhaps one of the more interesting is in regards to “solar cooking.” Many campers have found that they can successfully cook camp meals without the need of traditional camp stoves that use up precious natural resources. Instead, they utilize our most natural – and abundant – fuel source, the sun.
Mosquito repellents can be full of harsh chemicals, so it’s best to avoid behaviors that might attract them such as dark clothing, heat, moisture, and floral scents left behind from fabric softeners and laundry detergents. Cedar or cinnamon oil are good natural repellents.
Finally, remember that setting up a tent causes irreversible damage to the land, so it’s better to use a pre-established site while camping than trailblaze a new one for your sleeping quarters.
For many of us, a love of nature is in our blood, with a bit of forethought, that love can shine through in our actions as well.