It isn’t often that we associate the words “Go take a hike” with warm wishes for good health, creativity, spiritual growth and all-encompassing contentment. On the contrary, being spitefully told to take a hike, get lost, fly a kite or partake in any other sort of outdoorsy activity alone makes us feel rather unwanted, which is generally the speaker’s intention.
But in this post, I want us to suspend the popular perception of this acerbic idiom and replace it with a sunnier interpretation. I want us to consider how something as simple and carefree as a half-hour trek through nature can reap tremendous benefits for body, mind and soul.
This positive spin on a negative phrase carries encouraging news, especially for those who sometimes shudder at the thought of a fast-paced kickboxing class at 6 a.m. after a sleepless night with a sick child, or who just can’t seem to motivate themselves to hit the weights in a packed and noisy gym after a stressful day at the office. With just a little bit of time and a trusty pair of tennis shoes, we can literally walk our bad moods, bad habits and worries all away!
Today, I’m advising you—lovingly—to take a hike, and here are my top reasons why:
You’ll Be Less Stressed and Less Depressed
Spending time in nature has been linked to stress reduction. A number of studies have found that time spent outdoors relieves stress, improves focus and memory, and even promotes a sense of life satisfaction. Even on a crisp fall day, taking a walk outside can improve memory and attention span by up to 20 percent.
Well-conducted clinical trials have also shown vast mood improvements in adults with depression who exercise regularly. In some cases, in fact, exercise proves just as effective at elevating moods as antidepressant medication! There is also substantial evidence that walking with friends and family is even more advantageous than strolling solo because the social component builds stress resilience, lowers blood pressure, and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
– Søren Kierkegaard
You’ll Be More Energized
Did you just finish you third cup of coffee today and still feel like you need a nap? Try lacing up your tennis shoes and heading outside instead. Walking outdoors has been shown to recharge our batteries and elevate our moods, thanks to the wonderful feel-good endorphins it produces.
According to a 2008 study, individuals with sedentary lifestyles experienced a significant boost in energy (20 percent) and a 65 percent reduction in fatigue after walking. Dr. Tim Peutz, a co-author of this study, says, “Exercise traditionally has been associated with physical health, but we are quickly learning that exercise has a more holistic effect on the human body and includes effects on psychological health. What this means is that in every workout a single step is not just a step closer to a healthier body, but also to a healthier mind“ (emphasis mine).
You’ll Have Fewer Cravings
Nothing can thwart your weight-loss or weight-maintenance goals like mindless munching. A handful of candy here, a bag of chips or two there—it all adds up. While it doesn’t seem like much, a brisk walk could be all it takes to chase away those pesky cravings and silence the sweet treats calling out to you.
In a 2008 study, researchers recruited a group of “regular chocolate eaters”—people who ate at least two chocolate bars a day—and had them abstain for three days. The participants were then divided into groups and assigned to work on difficult cognitive tests to raise their stress levels. They were also tempted with unwrapped chocolate bars. (How cruel!) The researchers found that if the subjects walked for 15 minutes on a treadmill at a pace that was quick but not tiring, they were far less likely to experience cravings and even exhibited lower blood pressure when handling the chocolate bars.
You’ll Prevent Disease
It’s true what Benjamin Franklin said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Walking is a wonderful offensive weapon when it comes to warding off disease and illness. A daily half-hour walk can help prevent strokes, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. To cut your risk of heart disease by 40 percent, the American Heart Association recommends you walk fairly briskly—3 to 4 miles per hour—and for 30 to 60 minutes at least five days a week.
A recent study found that walking every day for at least an hour might lower the risk of stroke by as much as one-third. Leader of the study, doctor and researcher Barbara Jefferis, says that “aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, which includes walking at a brisk pace or light gardening, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activities, such as jogging or tennis … would protect against heart disease and diabetes, as well as protecting against stroke.”
You’ll Think Better and Be More Creative
A study at New Mexico Highlands University has found that the force from our footsteps can increase the supply of blood to the brain. Researchers at Stanford have found that walkers performer better on tests that measure “creative divergent thinking” during and after their walks.
A study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience shows that regular exercisers do better on tests of creativity than their more sedentary peers.
Specifically, researchers noted that regular exercise seems to be associated with improved divergent and convergent thinking, which are considered the two components of creative thinking; the former involves thinking of multiple solutions for one problem, while the latter involves thinking of one solution for a problem. Both skills could definitely come in handy when brainstorming plotlines and character arcs for our novels!
Next time you’re feeling low or experiencing a writing slump, I encourage you to step outside, start walking, and let your mind and emotions run free. You’ll not only be doing your body good, but your story will benefit too.
But don’t make exercise a last resort. Instead, pencil it into your daily schedule to keep your mind and body sharp 24/7. Whether it’s an hour-long CrossFit class, half-hour yoga session, or 10-minute walk, every little bit will reap rewards of boosted energy, mental and physical wellbeing, and flourishing creativity.