In Japan, they call it Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. In the US, it’s hiking. Either way, spending time walking in nature has many physical and mental benefits which combine to reduce stress. Whether you live near the plains, mountains or desert, getting outside will likely do you good.
The dangers of stress
Stress wreaks all kinds of havoc on the body. It leads to insomnia, depression, digestive difficulties and an increased risk for heart disease. According to Lorenzo Cohen, MD, Anderson Cancer Center’s director of integrative medicine, stress weakens your immune system and can cause cancerous tumors to develop. While some stress-causing factors can’t be controlled, he says, others can. He recommends focusing on yourself and finding time for enjoyable activities.
Hiking as cardio exercise
Cardiovascular exercise has many well-established benefits, including improving heart and mental health, reducing stress and increasing self-esteem. Brisk walking raises the heart rate. For deconditioned people, even walking at an ordinary pace can be a cardio workout. Add in hills, uneven terrain, and the extra weight of a backpack full of provisions, and hiking kicks the cardio work up another notch.
A study on forest walking
A Japanese study published in the 2010 examined the effects of “forest bathing.” Researchers observed the effects of forest and urban walking on a sample of 280 young adults. Among the forest walkers, they found lower blood pressure, pulse rate and concentrations of cortisol, a hormone released during stressful times. The study’s researchers proposed the development of a “forest medicine” research field, to be used as preventative medicine.
Keep your hike stress-free
In order to make your hike a stress reducer rather than a cause of more anxiety, you need to prepare. Make sure your shoes are comfortable and appropriate to the terrain. If you are new to hiking, be conservative about how far you will be able to go. Leave early in the day, and carry water, snacks, sunscreen, a map, flashlight and whistle. Because carrying a backpack adds extra weight, new hikers should start out slowly, even if you already have a regular walking routine. It’s safest to hike with a buddy. If you are going alone, let somebody know where you will be and arrange to check in when you are safely back home.