Anyone who’s experienced the triumph of summiting a mountain knows that hiking is an incredible workout. And it’s particularly beneficial for the brain. Combine intense exercise with nature, and you have an activity that packs a one-two punch when it comes to supporting cognitive health.
All Exercise Is Good For The Brain
Research shows that regular exercise is the best way to prevent dementia. Several studies show the acute effects of exercise in terms of attention and concentration. Furthermore, exercise benefits the brain, even in adults who already experience mild cognitive impairment (direct evidence that exercise can turn back the clock in the brain).
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. Physical exercise can grow and promote gray matter retention and thickness in important regions of the brain, like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
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. But when you’re out in the forest or other wild terrain, 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. 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. On a hike, you can further exercise your brain by learning to use a compass. Or, after you feel prepared fitness-wise, you could plan an overnight backpacking trip, which requires you to hone a whole slew of skills, like pitching a tent, filtering water, cooking on a camp stove, just to name a few.
Nature’s Power To destress
While the very act of working out supports the brain, nature’s sights, sounds, and even smells also have a positive influence. A 2020 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. When people were in nature, they tended towards neural signals associated with making fewer decisions and relaxing quite a bit. Any relief from stress, which affects both memory and mood, will likely have positive effects on the brain.