Hiking To Benefit Your Brain!

Hiking is something I have wanted to do. I do it so infrequently that I don’t always enjoy it because of how out of shape I am.

If I can follow the below advice I think it is a marvelous way to not only get some exercise but to enjoy our gorgeous landscapes!

All Exercise Is Good For The Brain…

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are on the rise. “Several studies show the acute effects of exercise in terms of attention and concentration,” explains Dr. Joyce Gomes-Osman, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and rehabilitation neuroscientist who works with the MindCrowd project researching memory and the brain.

The conclusion of many studies? Exercise clearly benefits the brain, even in adults who already experience mild cognitive impairment. “It’s direct evidence that exercise can turn back the clock in the brain,” she says.

Regular exercise supports the health of your blood vessels. Roughly 15 to 20 percent of the blood pumped by your heart goes to your brain, even though your brain takes up only 2 to 3 percent of your body mass.

Working out also prevents the loss of total brain volume that happens with age. “After age 40, we lose 1 percent of our brain matter,” explains Dr. Sarah C. McEwen, a cognitive psychologist and senior research scientist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

“Physical exercise can grow and promote gray matter retention and thickness in important regions of the brain, like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex,” McEwen adds.

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Exercising Your Internal GPS…

You could think of the hippocampus – an essential region for learning, memory, and navigation – as your internal GPS. While exercise alone is good for the hippocampus, working out in a cognitively demanding environment may be even better, according to a 2012 study.

“When you do exercise on an elliptical or treadmill, you’re not being challenged cognitively. You’re just using automatic movements you’d use every day,” explains McEwen.

But when you’re out in the forest or other wild terrain, she adds, “you have to use spatial navigation, your memory, and your attention” with nearly every step.

New Skills Enhance Brain Plasticity…

Hiking is also an opportunity to hone new skills, which involves neuroplasticity, or the nervous system’s ability to accommodate new demands and information.

Neuroplasticity is a “vital superpower of our nervous system that distinguishes us from other animals,” says Gomes-Osman.”

Its effect is powerful when this new undertaking is outside of your comfort zone. A 2013 study found that older adults who learned a new, complex skill showed marked improvements in memory.

Destress in Nature…

Working out has so many benefits including relieving stress. But spending time in nature also helps alleviate stress. A 2020 study suggests that spending time in nature changes signals in the brain and promotes a more relaxed state.

“In the study, they could see brain waves decrease in the prefrontal cortex when compared to urban settings,” explains Gomes-Osman. “When people were in nature, they tended towards neural signals associated with making fewer decisions and relaxing quite a bit.”

New To Hiking? Some Tips…

There is trail walking and then there is hiking. No the difference and make sure you plan and prepare.

Be Prepared

Dress appropriately! Wear layers suitable for the weather and made from breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics, like silk, wool, or synthetics (no cotton, please!), to stay warm and dry.

Also pack the “10 essentials,” established by Seattle-based climbing organization The Mountaineers, for every hike.

This list of gear includes:
– a map (Google Maps doesn’t count)
a headlamp
sun protection
first-aid supplies
– a knife
– fire-starting materials
– an emergency shelter, such as a tent or space blanket
– extra food
– extra water
– a change of clothes

It might seem like overkill, but you never want to be in a situation where not having these can make your whole hike miserable and even dangerous.

And, of course, don’t forget to bring a mask. If there’s no one around, you can take it off, but make sure to keep it handy in case you come across another hiker.

In Closing…

The pandemic has changed and canceled a lot of things and travel for us. Hiking isn’t one of them and is something that is good for your brain and body!

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