Since shortly after I started my weight-loss and healthy lifestyle journey, people have expressed interest in my diet and fitness routine. While no one seems to be surprised by what I’m eating and avoiding in the kitchen, people are shocked to learn that most of my activity is hiking, as often as the weather permits, and walking when it doesn’t.
Since I have access to a treadmill, you may be wondering why I hike. Hopping on and off a treadmill is easier and saves a lot of time but, for me, hiking is much more than fulfilling a daily exercise routine.
One of the tools we use in positive psychology is to consider times in which we were at our best during our lives to hone in on themes and elements to reinforce or reintroduce into our lives now. As I focused on my recovery after harassment, I reflected on those times. One of the strongest commonalties during all of the times I was at my best was regularly spending some amount of time in nature. I decided to make sure to incorporate nature time in my new routine and began hiking locally.
Hiking has physical benefits, for sure. According to Daniel Ferris, University of Florida senior associate chair of J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering and professor of Engineering Innovation, when you walk on uneven terrain, as is common on nature trails, your heart rate increases and you burn more calories. In addition, the varying ground types and slopes require slight shifts in the way your leg muscles work, increasing the amount of energy you expend.
But, hiking is much more than an efficient workout. When I step into nature, my world changes, and I change, too. I reconnect with a much more peaceful existence and beautiful sights, sounds, and scents. Every outing is an adventure, even when I return to familiar trails.
Research shows that even brief nature experiences can have a large positive impact on our wellbeing, according to Dr. Miles Richardson, University of Derby head of Psychology and deputy head of Life Sciences, and head of the Nature Connectedness Research Group. He explains that “a sustainable relationship with nature is more than science . . . It is also a network of joy, calm, meaning, and beauty.”
Time spent in nature calms activity in a part of the brain linked to mental illness, shares University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences Professor and Harvard University JPB Environmental Health Fellow Greg Bratman. “Hanging out with Mother Nature also seems to reduce your mind’s propensity to ‘ruminate,’” which may be linked to depression and anxiety. “There’s mounting evidence that, for urbanites and suburbanites, nature experience increases positive mood and decreases negative mood.”
“Exposure to nature can reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; improve vitality and mood; benefit issues of mental wellbeing such as anxiety; and restore attention capacity and mental fatigue,” according to Dr. Richardson. “But more than that, feeling a part of nature has been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness, and lower cognitive anxiety.”
Recovering from trauma is not easy. It takes deliberate effort and positive actions over time, as well as learning about triggers and interventions. Therapy and the support of my close friends were instrumental for me to survive my ordeal, mindfulness meditation helped me regain my focus on the present, and hiking helped me transition from surviving each day to enjoying life again.
Time spent in nature may have helped me lose 100 pounds, but it also helped me gain so much more. I’m not only in better physical health, but I’m also in a better frame of mind. Adding hiking to my routine has helped me rediscover peace, experience exciting adventures, and thrive again.
See more hiking, nature, and wildlife photography on Instagram at @the.lisa.michelle.kucharz.