Hiking can improve overall mental health

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Walking or hiking in nature is not only great for physical health, but experts have found that even a 90-minute excursion outdoors can have a positive impact on mental health.

BYU student studying second language teaching Anastasia Rybakova grew up in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, where nature seemed far away and there were no mountains to be seen.

Rybakova was introduced to hiking by the American family she lived with after moving to the U.S. in 2016. It quickly became something she enjoyed doing and has become a part of her life ever since.

“That’s what I like about hiking. It’s unplugging yourself and being in nature. It’s a good way to clear your mind,” Rybakova said.

Nature can be a place for people to go and distance themselves from the sometimes overwhelming standards that society forces upon individuals, according to Rybakova.

“For people with or without mental health issues, we struggle. But when we’re out in nature, we don’t have to live up to others expectations,” she said.

The constant bombarding of society that comes via technology can leave people feeling drained, especially those in an urban environment where the pace of life is faster. People living in urban areas have less interaction with natural environments. With less exposure to nature, many are missing out on the natural benefits that come from stepping out of their backyard and into the wild.

“Coming out to the mountains helps put things into perspective. Being in nature brings calmness and happiness back to me,” BYU public health student Ida Tovar said.

Even for those who may not suffer from mental health issues, being outdoors and hiking can help them fully appreciate their capacity to accomplish hard things, according to Tovar.

“You should get outdoors before you have a mental health problem. Getting out and doing it can help us be more well-balanced,” Tovar said.

The key to reaping nature’s benefits is getting away from the city and getting into nature. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, but this number is projected to increase to 68 percent by 2050, according to a report from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Experts speculate that mental illness may become more common among the population as more people relocate to urban environments and away from nature.

The cause of mental illness is complicated and usually involves multiple factors, including biological and environmental ones, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, there are also many things that can help relieve some aspects of mental illness, no matter the cause.

In a recent study, researchers found that people who went on a 90-minute hike or walk in nature reported less rumination, or repeated focusing on negative aspects about themselves, compared to those who walked in urban environments.

Those who spent time walking in nature also showed lower levels of activity in the area of the brain that is linked to the risk of mental illness, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“There are mental health benefits of being outdoors. Some of these are exercise, social connection, mindfulness and behavioral activation,” said psychologist Dianne Nielsen, who works in the BYU Counseling and Psychological Services.

Walking and hiking in nature has gained popularity because of the positive correlation it has with physical and mental health. Its benefit on mental health happens regardless of whether someone is currently affected by a mental illness.

“I think the same things that are helpful for people with mental health problems are helpful for people who don’t have those problems — exercise, social connection, mindfulness and behavioral activation. Also, it probably fosters gratitude, which has mental health benefits,” Nielsen said.

Hiking is now considered the most popular activity among adventurers, taking the lead from kayaking and mountain climbing, according to a report by the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

The state of Utah has over 75 mountain ranges, over 30 state parks and five national parks — providing plenty of opportunities for Utahans to get outdoors.

Salt Lake City is listed in the top 15 U.S. hiking cities in America by National Geographic.

“With wild hikes within an hour, these 15 cities have some of the best outdoor access in urban America,” according to its website.

With Y Mountain, Rock Canyon and Provo Canyon all within a few minutes’ drive, hiking is also a popular past time of BYU students and Provo residents.

“I’m attracted to being outdoors for the feeling of being away from the hustle and bustle, the fresh air and freedom,” Provo-based outdoor and travel photographer Sean Gassaway said. “It is absolutely helpful for mental health to be able to get out away from the stress and be in nature.”

Hikers in Utah range from novice to expert, but hikers of all experience levels can receive the physical and mental benefits of getting outdoors. Those who want to receive the mental health benefit of hiking simply need to get outside and get moving.

“Just do it. If you have to start small, start small. Make a goal to go out and then follow through,” Gassaway said.

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