10 reasons why your brain loves a hike (according to science)

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Written by Gershon Portnoi
If you go down to the woods today, it won’t just be your legs and lungs that will benefit - your grey matter will also get a very pleasant surprise.
If you thought Sudoku and crossword puzzles were the only ways of exercising your brain, it’s time to think again. Research has shown that hiking can have an amazing impact on your brain, boosting memory, creativity, and even boosting your mental health.
So to inspire you to hit the trail more regularly, here are 10 incredible facts about hiking outdoors and its effect on your noggin...

1. Using a compass supercharges the brain

Losing your bearings while hiking can actually be beneficial for your brain because it means you have to employ new skills, such as map-reading or using a compass, to work out where you are and where you need to go. “You’re much more likely to get lost when you hike so you’re really exercising the plasticity in your brain because you’re having to orienteer yourself and navigate,” says neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow. “Basically, learning new skills for navigating your way around this new space, and even the simple act of exploring, helps your brain to flourish again, boosts brain plasticity and flexibility and helps functional circuits to form in the brain."

2. Chemicals released by trees reduce stress

Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides can relieve stress
Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides can relieve stress
The mere act of spending time in woodland can be hugely helpful to your brain thanks to the anti-bacterial chemicals released by trees and plants. Studies have found that exposure to these phytoncides can have a significant effect on stress, with cortisol levels found to be lowered among those who spend more time in green spaces. What's more, a sustained amount of time around woodland has also been found to improve the body's immune system and increase energy levels. Which certainly helps to explain the huge popularity of shinrin yoku ('forest bathing') over in Japan, where the healing powers of the outdoors have long been recognised.

3. Exploring helps establish new nerve cells

Might want to blow the cobwebs of those big old ordnance survey maps in the attic, because going for a hike somewhere you’ve never previously visited could have a big impact on the mind. “There’s some evidence to say that exploring new environments helps those new nerve cells that have just been born from the exercise,” says Dr Critchlow. “It helps them to be consolidated into the functional circuit within your brain so they can start being used.” So, instead of doing the same old walk next time you decide to get outdoors, take on a new route and reap extra rewards.

4. Hiking can spark creative thoughts

Looking for your next big idea? If you really want to help your brain’s ability to think differently and be creative, then yep, you guessed it, go for a hike: “Any kind of exercise seems to induce neurogenesis, which is the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the key area of the brain involved in learning and memory,” explains Hannah. “Hiking would enhance neurogenesis in your brain which allows it to flourish with new nerve cells that help you to see the world in new ways and to think in new ways."

5. Your brain rewards trips to the outdoors

Your deep brain circuitry will reward you for going outdoors
Your deep brain circuitry will reward you for going outdoors
If you spend way too much time in the city, simply getting a train to the countryside can have a huge impact on your deep brain circuitry, according to Dr Critchlow. “Anything that allows you to take a break and go to a different space also allows your brain to think in a different way. As humans, we’re primed and motivated to want to explore and move around to different spaces and environments and find out new things from those environments. So we follow our natural instincts that we’ve evolved for and the deep brain circuitry embedded within our brain which prompts us to want to do that, then rewards us once we have."

6. Walking outdoors helps beat depression

According to recent research, even the smallest amount of time spent in the countryside can reduce your chance of developing depression. Which means even something as simple as hiking for half-a-day could help you get mentally fit and provide a hefty amount of weaponry when fighting back against any mental health issues you may be encountering. In addition, a 2015 study by Stanford University found that spending time in natural environments helped to calm the part of the brain linked to mental illness.

7. You'll remember more things

Regular hiking can also have a major impact on your memory, meaning at the very least you’ll be less likely to forget that crucial birthday or anniversary for the sixth year in a row. This is known because some bods at the University of British Columbia made a load of people walk briskly for an hour, twice a week, and found many examples of the subjects’ hippocampus growing bigger as a result. Not only does that help with creativity, as Dr Critchlow explained earlier, but that also boosts our ability to remember and learn.

8. Exercising in beautiful surroundings induces alpha waves

Believe it or not, going off on a hike to a scenic, natural spot can induce alpha waves to work their magic in your brain with spectacular results. “Exercising in beautiful surroundings would induce alpha waves, the slow frequency of brain waves that flow electrically across your brain,” explains Dr Critchlow. “What they are particular good for are helping you to think in a calm and maybe creative way as well. There is some indication that if you have higher alpha waves it helps to combat depression.”

9. Those endorphins will start popping

Hikers can experience their own equivalent of a 'runner's high'
Hikers can experience their own equivalent of a 'runner's high'
We’ve all heard runners bang on about those feel-good endorphins they get after smashing a 250-mile Sunday morning jog - or something along those lines anyway. But the good news is that the neurochemicals are not exclusive to runners. In fact, hiking can also cause the brain to release endorphins which can have the effect of decreasing our sensitivity to stress and pain, and also make us feel euphoric.

10. Hiking can keep age-related brain problems at bay

It’s not just all these amazing short-term brain benefits that hiking will give you (although even if it was, that would still be pretty good). Research has shown that regular walking for a year can have a long-lasting impact on the overall plasticity of the brain, especially in the ageing brain, meaning that potential age-related brain problems can be kept at bay.
So there you have it: the power of a good hike is not to be underestimated. For a few ways to take your hiking next level, check out the articles below...