(P1)..Nature-based physical activity, including countryside walks, hiking, and horseback riding, has been found to be an effective way to improve the health of people with mental illness. A 2005 study showed that walking 35 minutes per day, five times per week, or 60 minutes three times per week significantly improved symptoms of depression. Walking 15 minutes per day did not have such an effect on mood. Other reported symptoms included lower blood pressure, protection against heart disease, and boosting self-esteem. In another study, 20 British participants compared hiking outdoors in a natural setting to walking in an indoor urban shopping mall. Seventy-one percent of those who hiked outside reported a decrease in depressive symptoms while 22% reported increased depression when walking indoors. Ninety percent reported an increase in self-esteem while in nature, and 44% said self-esteem decreased when walking indoors. Many observational and interventional studies show that regular exercise reduces symptoms of depression. In one study, 156 people with depression were divided into three groups; those who did aerobic exercise, those who took the SSRI medicine Zoloft (Sertraline), and those who exercised and took Zoloft. After 16 weeks, all three groups showed an equal response with a 70% improvement of symptoms. The group that took the prescription medicine improved quicker than the group that just did aerobic exercise.
In one study, 56 adults of an average age of 28 years participated in an evaluation of creative reasoning after exposure to natural settings. The 28 males and 28 females were evaluated through Remote Associates Testing (RAT) before and then just after participation in an Outward Bound outdoor program. Performance on the RAT test increased by 50% after just four days of Outward Bound. In another study, green outdoor activities reduced symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and had more positive effects on symptoms than other indoor activities; 96 parents of children with confirmed ADHD reported that “fresh air” and the ability to be outside in light, open spaces was better at reducing ADHD symptoms.
A meeting of the American Heart Association in New Orleans discussed the results of an Austrian study of 45 volunteers who went hiking three to five hours per week, up and down a ski mountain in summer over a two-month period. Blood sugar significantly decreased, and glucose tolerance measurably improved while total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides also significantly decreased. In a 2011 study, 12 female breast cancer patients and six male prostate cancer patients measured oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity before and after a long hiking trip. The generation of free radicals and oxidative stress is believed to be an important factor in the genesis and promulgation of cancer. Oxidative stress decreased, especially in the male prostate cancer patients, and antioxidant capacity significantly increased in both groups after the hike.
Twenty-four Norwegian families with children were interviewed after their experiences of hiking together in a natural environment. The researchers concluded that incorporation of nature-based activities helped to improve family bonding and cohesion of the family unit. An evaluation of 30 males and 16 females from Norway, aged 30 to 79 years, showed that two-thirds reported an increase in overall health status, quality of life, and function after engaging in outdoor nature activities. They also reported an increase in self-efficacy and self-esteem due to outdoor activities that included hiking.
Clearly, there is a vast and largely untapped healing power to nature. The positive impact on human health, particularly the mental and emotional aspects are incredible. For me, hiking has been the conduit to access this immense source of energy. Doctors should routinely prescribe a dose of nature for many common ailments that are currently treated by pharmaceuticals. The cost is low, and the health benefits are vast