Recently, my husband and I combined a trip to see the red rocks of Utah with a weekend for our son’s wedding in the Wasatch Mountains. We had long heard about Arches National Park and Canyonlands. We could visit both places at once.
During that week, we were also granted enough time to explore another range, the Uinta Mountains, before the wedding. When we returned home, I made a mental note. Our weekend walks in the city would now include ventures to the area’s forested regions too.
What draws us to paths and trails in nature, and does it help keep our bodies healthy and brains intact?
Accessibility and Benefits
Unlike skiing or fishing, hiking for a few hours requires little in the way of equipment, given some knowledge of the area. With the rising popularity of the AllTrails app, an app that became more prominent during the pandemic, finding trails near your home, and in proximity to your skill level, is as easy as downloading a free version of the app.
All it takes is a good pair of walking shoes, a bottle of water, a few nutrition bars, and you are off.
Once I began using AllTrails, the entire state of Ohio beckoned me to hike. I used the app wherever I traveled, and easily discovered new trails to explore. When I demonstrated the use of the app to my sister, one of my walking companions when we’re in the same town, she was surprised by how many hikes existed near her in the Cleveland Metroparks.
Not only do we benefit from the fresh air, but also from the calming nature of trees and streams. And, to follow a map or trail requires brain activity. I have always loved maps, ever since my parents ordered AAA Triptiks for every vacation. The kids fought to sit up front with our parents (when that was allowed) and check off the stops. One felt in charge when they knew the location of the next restroom stop. However, we also learned how to navigate highways and byways through this effort, and our father’s insistence on retrieving a map to plot our routes wherever we were planning to drive.
If we are on a path long enough, we allow our minds to wander while simultaneously watching where we step. Recently, a friend of mine with a repetitive injury to the leg, began hiking instead of taking daily walks in her neighborhood. When I asked why the change, she mentioned how the nature of hiking required us to be intentional every step of the way. The paths are sometimes rocky, go up and down, and can often be slippery. By watching each step, we become aware of what dangers are in front of us, have a sense of direction further along the trail, and remain in the moment focused on the task.
Luckily for us, while in the Utah mountains, I also learned that, according to the Health Fitness Revolution, “Altitude is king when it comes to losing weight! And the sweetest thing about this cardio workout? Trails are typically easier on your joints than concrete or blacktop would be for running and walking, so your knees and ankles will seriously thank you after your trek.”
The overall benefits to hiking are plenty, including burning calories and keeping your heart fit. On any hill, consistent breathing is not only a side benefit, but necessary, especially when it comes to altitude.
If you’re not happy while hiking, don’t tell the researchers who published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The findings reveal individuals who walk in nature are less likely to be depressed. The participants in the test walked for 1½ hours in nature and demonstrated less activity in that part of the brain related to depression than participants who walked in city areas bustling with traffic.
In the Midwest, the leaves are just starting to change color. Before winter settles in, we have time to get fit, be intentional, discover a few new paths outside our usual routes, and find a little bit of happiness on the trail.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine and Creative Nonfiction (both forthcoming). Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.