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How Hiking Improved My Mental Health

I wasn’t the most “normal” child, if I could put it that way. While other kids ran around in a make-believe world of magic, I was making my own pretend world where life had a strict balance of fun and caution. Sure, we could go chase the pretend bad guys, but we should probably make sure our medic kit is up to date just in case we catch a life-threatening infection. My journey through anxiety and fear started at a young age and it took me many years to learn how to master my subconscious thought process. I am one of those people who knows every plane-crash statistic, side effects of major pharmaceuticals, and early warning signs of colon cancer (most of us health professionals are a little odd). As a teenager and young adult, I was extremely insecure of my weaknesses and inability to “just live a little”. Time and a few difficult experiences forced me to face fear head on; I learned to embrace my faults and make peace with myself. I have accepted the fact that my brain may be wired a little differently, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living life or stop me from looking for ways to improve myself.

If you have ever dealt with fear or anxiety, you know how hard it is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and how heartbreaking it is to want to achieve something, but ultimately aren’t willing to risk it. This is something I know all to well. As a kid, my parents forced my brother and I to hike a few times each week on a small trail by our home for exercise. I always enjoyed being outdoors as a kid – hiking, camping, skiing, and swimming when I could. Even though I spent a lot of time outside, I didn’t appreciate the outdoors until I turned twenty.

There is something powerful about accomplishing the challenge of a trail and feeling small up against tall trees or on top of a majestic mountain. The beautiful thing about hiking is that the trail will accept you in any condition; sad, angry, disappointed, anxious, happy, or thoughtful. Maybe you need to hit the trail to clear your mind so you can gain perspective on a situation or maybe you need a place to go shed some tears. The trail is always accepting and always willing to listen. By the time I finish a hike, no matter how I begun, I always leave feeling like a new person. As I gained hiking experience, I started to push myself towards harder conquests. By constantly looking for the next battle, always a little harder than the last, I am learning to feel comfortable pushing my limits, which carries over to my daily life. My once “hiking mountain” has now become my “training mountain.” I went from relaxing, short trails to purchasing my first ice axe and looking forward to technical climbs in higher elevation. And I feel darn good about that.

There is also a physical response behind hiking. Strenuous exercise leads to an endorphin release that sends the mind on a healthy “high”. The exercise-induced endorphin rush is great enough as it is, but even better when experienced out in nature. Harvard Health states, “Researchers at the University of Essex in England are advancing the notion that exercising in the presence of nature has added benefit, particularly for mental health. Their investigations into ‘green exercise,’ as they are calling it, dovetails with research showing benefits from living in proximity to green, open spaces. In 2010 the English scientists reported results from a meta-analysis of their own studies that showed just five minutes of green exercise resulted in improvements in self-esteem and mood.”1In addition, spending time outdoors can improve vitamin D levels, improve concentration, and possibly increase healing time. Don’t take my word for it, close the laptop and hit the trail.

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