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Hiking and Happiness: Science Unveils the Secret

Why is it that so many people say that hiking and being outside makes you happier? Hiking is difficult, somewhat dangerous, and definitely uncomfortable. I wanted to find out the real facts and data that’s out there about happiness and hiking. I also have my own personal experience that I’ll save for the end of the post.

Hiking as well as outdoor activity has objectively been shown to assist in reducing cortisol (stress hormone) and lowering our heart rate, which is associated with lower stress. Hiking has been shown to temper the effects of anxiety, depression and stress. Lastly, hikers claim a better sense of well-being.

Just like anything, there is no “silver bullet” for being happy. As you might imagine. Happiness will not automatically happen if you start hiking every weekend. But will it help? Well, it will on many different levels. For the rest of this post I’ll talk about all the different ways hiking can make us happy.

This post is a choose your own adventure exercise:

  1. if you want to see what science says, read this part of the article
  2. If you want to see what my own personal experience is and the experience of others, read this part of the article

What Science Says about Hiking and Happiness

Hiking Makes You Happy

Happiness is a complicated thing. It’s not easy to say that any one thing can “make you happy.”

little-boy-hiking
Hiking, a simple joy

There’s a lot of hype about being outside, and I wanted to find out if there was actual data to support whether hiking could actually make a difference in your happiness.

Because of that, I’ve gone through dozens of research articles to find out if it’s just hype or if there’s something to it.

Well, it turns out, there is.

Studies support that general exercise (indoor or outdoor) increases a general sense of well-being, and that exercising outdoors in particular decreases negative emotions such as depression, anger, and confusion, while also leading to more energy and feelings of revitalization. (meta study-analysis)

You’re more likely to feel restored and happy from hiking than from working out in a gym

Don’t get me wrong, working out in a gym will be better than no physical activity at all.

Hiking Is Perfect For Reducing Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is created due to a chemical inability to remove toxins from our bloodstream and can lead to several downstream health effects including but not limited to depression, cancer, diabetes, respiratory sicknesses, and kidney disease. (source)

Oxidation is normal and part of a healthy body, but the oxidation process needs to be in balance or it could cause severe health problems.

Nutrition is an important factor to protecting our bodies and removing free radicals from our bloodstream, but there are other things you can do to maintain a healthy oxidation balance.

Exercise, as you might imagine, has an impact on how your body operates and removes toxins. But the catch is, that high-intensity exercise could actually decrease your body’s ability to balance itself.

It turns out that regular moderate aerobic exercise can improve your body’s ability to remove free radicals from the bloodstream. (source)

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Guess which exercise is superior in being fantastic for consistent moderate aerobic exercise? Hiking!

Unless you’re hiking up the steep slopes of mountains, hiking is generally a mix of uphill and downhill which has the fantastic benefit of being a moderate energy burn over a long distance. Don’t get me wrong, hiking can be very physically challenging, but if you average it out over the miles it’s a mix of easy and hard trails.

If you hike regularly, you are assisting your body’s ability to balance free radicals. Besides an additional protection from depression, staying healthy leads to a happier life.

Exercise Reduces Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone. It signals to the body that we should be on high alert. Unfortunately, our body manufactures the stuff when we don’t want it and causes our mental health to suffer.

Stress can suck the joy out of anything. The things we love in life can be tainted by constant stress. We spend a lot of time stressing and even stressing about stressing.

Is hiking itself the magic bullet for reducing cortisol levels? We’re not sure yet. In fact, this study compared cortisol levels between hiking and walking on a treadmill indoors.

What happened? The post-exercise cortisol levels were the same. The body became less stressed after walking on a treadmill just as much as after hiking in a green space.

This detailed study also confirmed that mountain hiking, specifically, reduces measured cortisol levels. They even found that it didn’t matter if people were hiking around manmade stuff or in the pure wilderness.

As far as reducing cortisol, many exercises will help, including hiking. But outside of just cortisol, many people enjoy hiking and can’t stand walking on a treadmill. Hiking doesn’t have special magic on cortisol-reduction, but it definitely keeps up with exercising in the gym for reducing stress.

Hiking, as well as other aerobic activities, reduces cortisol production (our body’s stress hormone).

Hiking Makes Us Feel Energetic and Focused

If you ask anyone who enjoys the outdoors, they’ll easily tell you that they prefer hiking to treadmill walking. Why is that?

A detailed study reveals that for a random group of individuals, that hiking in the mountains brought stronger feelings of focus and energy than when they walked the same distance and intensity on a treadmill.

What does this mean? Well, it means that when you’re inside on a treadmill, you are more likely to feel tired and exhausted than if you go on a hike. This perhaps could mean that your mind will let your body hike farther (and enjoy the experience more) outside and in nature than if you walk in a gym.

Hiking over treadmill walking brought higher feelings of engagement. The hikers felt more connected to their experience of hiking compared to treadmill hiking. This makes a lot of sense because hiking outdoors there are views and things to see while walking indoors is pretty monotonous, letting our brains get a bit bored.

In this study, hiking and walking on a treadmill both increased feelings of calmness at about the same level when compared to just sitting around. So, the key takeaway here is exercise in any fashion is better than nothing, but hiking is more likely to increase your sense of well-being than some other exercises.

One drawback to this study is that all participants hiked or walked in a group of people–so what we don’t know is how much of a difference being with other people vs. exercising/hiking solo can make.

A trail in Arthur’s Pass

Decreasing Cognitive Load Increases Focus

One powerful concept that Kaplan and Berman suggest is that urban environments and green environments demand different types of attention.

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When you’re in the city, your brain is going crazy looking at everything and verifying that things aren’t threats and how to deal with things. When you’re looking over a grassy field with trees and hills in the background your brain doesn’t have to do near as much work and can relax.

The big point here is that with less to focus on, our brains have more energy to focus.

If you feel like your life is crazy and you don’t have time to process all that’s happening–a long, long hike through the woods might be just the thing to help you focus on what’s important.

Outdoor Activities Reduce The Effects of PTSD

Several studies, including this one and this one showed that outdoor activity in combination with companionship with others reduced stress, anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD.

Hiking is just one of the thousands of outdoor activities, but it’s calming and requires physical (and sometimes mental) exertion. It can be satisfying and therapeutic to hike with friends and pass through those challenges, together.

For those suffering from traumatic experiences, hiking over and around the beautiful earth can help those difficult feelings, especially with supporting and understanding friends.

While hiking can be done in a group, you can also go hiking solo.

It’s important to be careful, though–hiking alone can be beneficial, but it can also be dangerous especially if someone is emotionally struggling. I talk through some strategies of the experience of going camping alone that you can check out here.

Furthermore, if someone’s PTSD is linked to being in the wilderness, than hiking should be more carefully considered.

Preventing Suicide

In fact, this study was focused on patients that were at high-risk for suicide and concluded that carefully monitored group hiking activities showed that the patients had less negative feelings throughout the experience.

This study illustrated that while hiking and outdoor activity can be powerful, it’s important to still be mindful and take necessary precautions. For anyone struggling emotionally, hiking in groups is highly recommended.

Although not a cure by any stretch, hiking can help those struggling with feelings of self-harm.

Birdsong Is Linked To Greater Restorative Feelings

When asking someone “why do you prefer hiking to working out in the gym”, it might be difficult for that person to describe why exactly they enjoy hiking better. If someone does try, it’s often with terms that seem really subjective.

In fact, one fascinating study showed that bird song actually contributes to positive restorative effects. Anxiety-reducing feelings like being freed from your normal life and stresses, and other questions.

The sounds of nature makes us feel like we’re away from it all. This is something you don’t experience when you’re working out in the gym.

Hiking gives us a great opportunity to hear the sounds of nature such as the insects, birds, and the wind in the trees–all things that help us disconnect from the rest of our lives and connect with nature and those around us. I can personally affirm that the sound of wind going through the trees makes a feeling of peace wash over me.

Is Hiking For Everyone, Then?

I wanted to point out that not everyone loves hiking and the great outdoors. As with any study, there are people who respond to the surveys that say they are more anxious, or more unhappy. Statistically, most people will have less negative emotions from going outside, but there will be some that don’t receive any benefit or even be worse off.

Hiking Doesn’t Guarantee Positive Results For Everyone

From my research and personal experience with others–the outdoors isn’t always a freeing and positive experience for everyone. Part of the reason for this is that not everyone has the same level of experience in the outdoors.

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Somebody who spends a lot of time outside and knows how to react in difficult situations will feel safer and have less anxiety than someone who has very little experience outside.

Part of this is that in situations where we don’t feel like we are in control give us much more anxiety than if we feel like we have some control over the situation. Several studies have been conducted (like this one) that show that when people feel in control over a negative experience (in the case of this study, touching painfully cold items), their ability to cope with the hard experience was much better.

We can deal with more experiences with less anxiety if we feel like we have more control over the situation.

If you don’t know how to deal with emergencies or cope with the stresses of adventure, then immersing yourself in the outdoors might not bring you the positive happiness that others might experience.

If you’re new to hiking or other outdoor activities, I can’t understate the importance of finding friends who can help you experience more outside your comfort zone. When you are with someone who is experienced then it feels much less stressful, especially in hard situations. (Adventuring sometimes can be very difficult).

What I’ve Personally Experienced With Hiking and Happiness

Me being fortunate enough to hike the famous Milford Track in New Zealand

Does Hiking Make You Happy?

Without looking up scholarly articles–without going to Google, I could tell you that there’s something magic about hiking in nature.

My family group going on long backpacking trips every summer–and I feel fortunate, now, that I got to have that experience, but I didn’t always.

I Didn’t Get It At First

What I remember from those hikes as a kid was that the going was really hard. I remember being physically challenged beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I’ve since learned that level of exertion isn’t necessary–but that’s beside the point. However, even with that, and perhaps even because of the difficulty, I remember reaching the tops of mountains and feeling the euphoria of conquering a difficult goal.

Being a kid, I felt like the ultimate life experience was having a week of no interruptions video games. So, when my dad decided to upend things and take us camping and hiking, I didn’t always go willingly.

Coming Around To Hiking

Through the years, though, my perspective has changed and now I love the opportunity to get away from technology and the pressures of daily life and use my body to hike and explore.

What Benefits I Personally Get From Hiking

When I hike, I feel a sense of revitalization. I feel the weeks where I get to go on a weekend hike are the weeks I feel more emotionally equipped to face the next week.

I feel empowered when I can hike a rocky and steep trail that others would rather avoid.

I feel more connected with nature and my own thoughts since there’s not much else to do besides enjoy the scenery and think.

For an average day hike, I feel tired, but not spent like I do when I do a really hard workout at the gym. I still feel like I have the energy to do something more. (this is different if I’m backpacking… then I feel spent.)

Lastly, I feel a sense of peace. Something about the insects, birds, trees, and sky all combine together to create this feeling of peace that I don’t feel driving around town or doing anything else. Hiking is such a great way to see and experience the planet. I love finding new plants and spotting new insects that I haven’t seen before. Hiking is an accessible way to adventure.

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