Nature's potential to de-stress: How hiking enhances cognitive function

The ability of the nervous system to adapt to new demands and information, or neuroplasticity, is something that may be developed by hiking. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

The ability of the nervous system to adapt to new demands and information, or neuroplasticity, is something that may be developed by hiking. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 5, 2023


The first time I went hiking, I thought I was going to die.

That's a bit dramatic, I admit. But I hadn't given much consideration to the specifics before my excursion to the well-known hiking trail on Table Mountain.

When I heard the word "hiking," I had in mind leisurely strolls in serene mountains on paved trails. Man, was I mistaken.

As I dragged myself up the incline, my heart felt as though it may burst out of my chest. Every few minutes, I had to pause to catch my breath. I even fell a couple of times while attempting to avoid pebbles and tree roots.

After what seemed like an endless climb, I arrived at the summit to be greeted with an incredible panorama. I had not struggled in vain.

Hiking is a fantastic exercise, as anybody who has reached the peak of a mountain will attest. And the brain benefits significantly from it. When you combine vigorous exercise with the outdoors, your activity has a one-two boost for your cognitive health.

My hiking skills have now significantly improved throughout the holiday season. And I have to say that I do feel a lot more focused and sharper than I did before.

Even if my own experience is only anecdotal, there is a tonne of data that shows hiking is good for the brain.

As one of my family started exhibiting indications of Alzheimer's disease, I started taking my hiking seriously about the same time that I started to become more interested in brain health.

The news that consistent exercise is the greatest method to stave off dementia astonished me. According to Dr. Joyce Gomes-Osman, an associate professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation neuroscience who participates in the MindCrowd project studying memory and the brain, "Several studies reveal the immediate impacts of exercise in terms of attention and focus."

Gomes-Osman co-authored a 2018 analysis of randomised controlled trials examining how exercise affects cognition in older persons, titled "Exercise for Cognitive Brain Health in Ageing: A Systematic Review for an Evaluation of Dose."

The verdict? Even in people with modest cognitive impairment, exercise is definitely beneficial to the brain. She claims that there is "clear proof that exercise may reset the clock in the brain."

If you give it any thought, you can see why. Your blood vessels benefit from regular activity. The majority of the blood your heart pumps goes to your brain, even though it only makes up 2% to 3% of your body mass, according to a National Centre for Biotechnology Information study titled "Resting-state posterior alpha power changes with prolonged exposure in a natural environment."

This is because your brain requires only about 15% to 20%re f the blood in your body.

Exercise also halts the ageing-related reduction of overall brain volume. According to cognitive psychologist and senior research scientist Dr. Sarah C. McEwen, author of the aforementioned report and head of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Centre, "we lose 1% of our brain tissue after age 40."

An increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein crucial for normal cognitive function, coincides with these favourable alterations.

You might consider BDNF to be the brain's equivalent of Miracle Grow or the secret ingredient. In essence, it keeps them alive, according to McEwen. Exercise appears to be the secret to raising it.

The hippocampus, a crucial area for memory, learning, and navigation, may be compared to your internal GPS.

While exercise on its own is beneficial for the hippocampus, a 2012 research by Gerd Kempermann titled "New neurons for survival of the fittest" suggests that exercising in a situation that requires cognitive challenge may be even more beneficial.

"Using an elliptical or treadmill does not strain your cognitive abilities. You're basically employing daily, automatic motions,“ says McEwen.

There are health benefits to hiking. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

However, she continues, "You have to employ spatial navigation, your memory, and your concentration" with almost every step whether you're out in the wilderness or another untamed area.

The ability of the nervous system to adapt to new demands and information, or neuroplasticity, is something that may be developed by hiking. According to Gomes-Osman, neuroplasticity is an "essential ability of our neurological system that sets humans apart from other species."

"When this new endeavour is outside of your comfort zone, its impact is strong. According to a 2013 research titled "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Individuals: The Synapse Project," older adults who picked up a challenging new skill had notable memory gains.

By mastering the use of a compass, you may challenge your brain even more when hiking. Alternatively, once you feel healthy enough, you could organise an overnight hiking trip.

This would require you to develop a variety of skills, including how to pitch a tent, filter water, cook over a camp fire, and perfect the bear bag hang, to name a few.

While simply exercising benefits the brain, exposure to the sights, sounds, and even scents of nature also has a good impact.

However, to get the most cognitive advantages from hiking, don't be afraid to challenge yourself to climb ever-higher mountains.

According to McEwen, "the intensity of the exercise definitely counts" when it comes to maintaining brain function.