This article in the New Yorker reflects my experience exactly.
Recently I took a long hike in, Snowdonia, North Wales. This part of the world is a completely new landscape for me. The weather, windy and rainy, was weather I avoid at all costs when hiking. This time, however, I decided to not let the weather get in my way and embark on a hike up Mt. Snowdon, the tallest mountain in Wales. My experience was unlike any hike I’d taken in years: new smells, shifting clouds and light patterns, and terrain that challenged my brain and balance. The best part of the hike is that I took it with a dear friend.
According to Dr. John Ratey in his book, Spark, I had just experienced one of the most useful and effective activities one could ever have for the brain – the winning combination of:
- vigorous physical exercise
- done outdoors in nature
- with another person, preferably a good friend
Not only does movement, outside in nature, with another person, strengthen our physical body, but it changes our brains and can be a defense against ADHD, depression, Alzheimers and other problems.
There is nothing that clears my mind and helps me attune to my movement and mental state the way hiking and walking does. There’s no time for mental chatter ; the movement and sensory appreciation of the surroundings takes precedence. What is it about moving – in nature – that changes the way one feels? Is it just the physical exertion? The beautiful surroundings? The smells? The sounds of nature, so unfamiliar to those of us living in the suburbs or inner city? Or was it all of the above, a sensory and motor experience that can only be had when one puts one foot in front of the other and leaves the city and concrete behind? For some it’s not only the movement, but the way in which it is done.
My daughter, her friend and I were hiking last year in New Hampshire. My daughter tends to have problems finding shoes that fit comfortably. Blisters are an intimate friend. A third of the way up the mountain my daughter said, “oh man, these boots are giving me blisters!!” I replied, “you can go back, but I’m continuing on up. Or you can take off those boots and finish the hike barefoot. That might be fun!” And she did; she continued up and climbed all the way back down. When we reached the bottom she remarked that hiking barefoot over rocks, gravel and dirt had given her a completely different appreciation of her feet, her legs, her hips and her gait. In fact, she said, her whole body felt different!
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, writes that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development as well as for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. From my own personal experience I couldn’t agree more.