Hike yourself happy: The benefits of nature therapy
Looking for an antidote for depression and anxiety that involves a pair of sturdy shoes and not much else? We look at the effectiveness of exercise on your physical and mental health. It’s time to take a hike.
Twenty twenty. The year of new beginnings, or so it seemed. By now many of us are hoping that we wake up and 2020 was a mere dream, with no pandemic in sight. Unfortunately, it was real, very real. Life as we have been accustomed to appeared to vanish overnight, replaced by a strange new world. While working from home was once a mere dream of many, 2020 saw this dream become an everyday reality. For some of us this new reality was fraught with the added stress of managing working from home and home schooling, while others were lonely; gone was the everyday office interaction, the solitude of their four walls deafening.
Businesses all around the world have closed, some never to reopen. The simplicity of going to the doctor, work meetings in person and going out to dinner have now been replaced by Zoom meetings and social distancing. While people struggle to come to terms with our new COVID-19 world, anxiety and depression are on the rise tenfold. To overcome the mental health crisis COVID-19 has created, which has resulted in thousands of job losses, financial stress and fear, the government has implemented telehealth counselling services and more money in the fight to overcome mental illness. But is this really the answer?
What if I told you that there is an antidote for your depression and anxiety that doesn’t involve any sort of internet connection or electronic device and won’t cause weight gain? A way that will benefit your physical health and promote a sense of wellbeing and euphoria … interested? I bet you are.
Hiking combines the best of both worlds: exercise and nature.
It’s estimated that prior to COVID-19, a staggering 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression and anxiety across all age groups, and this number is increasing drastically since the pandemic hit. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) depression is the leading cause of disability. The suicide rate is the highest it has been in decades, with close to 800,000 people suiciding each year, and shockingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-olds. People who are still employed post COVID-19 are working longer hours just to make ends meet, are overworked and, as a result, feel tired and burnt-out most the time. Those who have lost their jobs are suffering from depression and anxiety and fearful that the stability they once took for granted might never return.
More people are using social media to connect with others, rather than interacting face to face. The use of technology to connect has increased substantially since the pandemic. Teenagers and adults alike are striving to mirror the lives of the “perfectly happy” people they follow on Instagram and Facebook. People are trying to emulate the lives of the Instagram influencers they aspire to who, quite frankly, seem to have it all, not to mention their perfect blend of working from a tropical island, capturing the perfect post to share which makes us mere mortals feel even more inadequate. Is it any wonder that so many people have depression?
You’re feeling low so you go to your doctor and are swiftly given the label of “depression”. Your doctor prescribes you some antidepressants and you promptly file the script before the ink has even dried on the paper. All you know is you want to feel better, now. You go home, then start to read all the side effects of the antidepressants: weight gain, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, the list goes on. You just want to feel better. You want to feel happiness from the inside out, that euphoric feeling of contentment, which somewhere along the line you have lost. You want to be able to balance work, study, family, finances and god forbid finding that elusive hour of “me time” you’ve somehow managed to lose along the way. You also shudder at the possibility of gaining weight.
Hike for happiness
Exercise and nature have been proven time and time again to be powerful antidepressants. The perfect combination of exercise and nature has an incredible power to heal. A study by the researchers from the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in England conducted a study involving 1991 participants. The results of the study confirmed that those who walked in nature had significantly less depression and stress. These findings were subsequently published in the September issue of Ecopsychology. Hiking combines the best of both worlds: exercise and nature.
A little-known fact is that doctors in Japan prescribe “Forest Therapy”, better known as “Forest Bathing” or shinrin-yoku, to patients to treat their depression. I’m sure you can all relate to the serenity of immersing yourself in nature, the scent of the trees, the calming chirp of the birds, the sunlight glistening through the leaves of the trees dancing in the cool, clean air of the forest. The majestic views overlooking the lushness of the forest below. Sitting on top of the mountainous peak you have just climbed, your senses taking it all it. No phone reception, no television or traffic. Perfect bliss. Combining the therapeutic benefits of nature with hiking, which works nearly all muscle groups, it is the perfect prescription for depression.
… exercise enhances a person’s sense of self and self-confidence. This is where medication for treatment of depression falls short.
There have been numerous studies on the effectiveness of exercise on a person’s mental health, with exercise being proven as being just as effective in the treatment of depression as antidepressants. The amount of antidepressant drugs being prescribed is at an all-time high, yet despite this, the rates of depression are still climbing. One study which has clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of exercise as an antidote for depression was conducted by Dr Blumenthal and colleagues. The research involved splitting 156 patients who had mild to moderate depression into three groups. Group one was given the antidepressant sertraline, commonly known as Zoloft. Group two was prescribed a combination of exercise and medication. The exercise consisted of three 45-minute exercise sessions per week and were also prescribed the same amount of Zoloft as those in group one. Group three were given exercise as the only treatment. The exercise consisted of the same routine that those in group two were given. This included a 10-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of jogging or walking at a pace that maintained a heart rate of 80 per cent to 90 per cent of their maximum and a five-minute cool-down.
Each of the study participants adhered to their routines for 16 weeks under the supervision of the research staff. At the cessation of the trial Dr Blumenthal and his colleagues discovered that all the three treatments yielded the same results. Treating depression with exercise was just as effective as medication alone. By the end of the 16 weeks, 83 of the 156 participants were depression-free. This is where the study gets interesting. Dr Blumenthal and his colleagues then continued to monitor the progress of the participants who participated in the trial for a further six months. The trial participants ceased all treatments from professionals. This is what the researchers subsequently found:
In group one, the medication-only group, 38 per cent of participants relapsed into depression.
In group two, the exercise and medication group, 31 per cent of participants relapsed into depression.
In group three, the exercise-only group, only 8 per cent of patients relapsed into depression.
Dr Blumenthal and his research team described the differences between exercise and medication as a treatment for depression thus: “One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression-reducing effects of exercise.”
Simply put, exercise enhances a person’s sense of self and self-confidence. This is where medication for the treatment of depression falls short. Medication simply treats the symptoms of depression, much like a Band-Aid, but fails to rebuild or enhance a person’s identity, sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. Have you ever heard of runners talking about their “runner’s high” and wondering what this means? This feeling of elation, also known as runner’s high, is due to the increase in serotonin and noradrenalin in the brain. Exercise increases the level of serotonin through the production of tryptophan hydroxylase, which is generated through exercise. Endorphins are one of many neurotransmitters that are released when a person exercises. Noradrenalin, dopamine and serotonin are important brain chemicals that are paramount to a person’s mood regulation.
Hiking in nature is the perfect blend of both nature therapy and exercise and is readily available to everyone — all you need is some hiking boots and water and you’re good to go. When you are feeling depressed and overwhelmed it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, focusing — and often ruminating — on the small things and disappointments. This ruminating in turn causes a snowball effect, and before you know it you are finding it hard to get out of bed and tackle the smallest of tasks. Spending the day hiking in nature breaks this cycle and clears your head, and suddenly you are seeing things from a different perspective. That small piece of the jigsaw you have been ruminating over becomes nothing but a corner of the bigger picture.
Hiking has been proven to lower your risk of heart disease, improve your blood pressure and boost bone density, to name just a few benefits.
Your legs may hurt, your toes may get blisters, you might almost step on a snake (which will really get your adrenalin running) or get lost, but you will use your inner strength and resilience to finish the hike. This will not only give you a much-needed confidence boost, but it will also facilitate a sense of personal achievement. Let’s not forget about the endorphins that hiking produces, those feel-good chemicals that are paramount to mood regulation. Another bonus of hiking is that it’s just as good for your physical health as it is for your mental health. Hiking has been proven to lower your risk of heart disease, improve your blood pressure and boost bone density, to name just a few benefits.
Hiking also promotes communication and connectedness. A big part of depression is lack of social connection. Not that long ago, teenagers met to go bike riding and people spoke on the phone. Society today seems to have lost human connection, which is so central to good mental health. Have you noticed how many hiking groups are springing up? There are free ones and hiking adventures aimed at all types of people looking to get back to nature and build friendships among fellow hikers. So, if you feel like you don’t have anyone to share the hiking experience with, you’re wrong. There’s a vast array of groups to join.
So, next time you feel that black dog around the corner put your hiking shoes on, fill up your water bottle, pick up that backpack and head for the trails. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.