During the pandemic, more people walked than ever before. With more time on our hands, many of us realized just how important movement is and how much it may have been lacking during our busy pre-pandemic lives. Nowadays, there is no argument that how much we exercise matters. But recent evidence indicates that where we exercise matters too, perhaps even more so: studies have shown that connecting with the natural world confers many health benefits that cannot be achieved indoors. Today we’ll discuss the advantages of exercising in nature through walking, hiking, and biking.
Walking, in general, produces various health benefits such as decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But did you know that where you walk uniquely impacts your health? A recent study conducted by researchers in Canada found that walking outside increased the benefits of walking on brain health. When subjected to a task after their walks, participants that walked outside demonstrated faster reaction times than those that walked indoors. Further, participants that walked outside demonstrated increased attention and memory. However, this effect was not observed in participants that walked indoors. Although more research is warranted, this preliminary evidence suggests that exercising in nature benefits our neurological health even more so than exercising indoors.
Hiking elicits many of the same benefits as walking outside. However, hiking has the added benefit of protecting the memory and navigation centers of our brains. Hiking relies on geonavigation, or navigation through observation of natural features; a practice that supports cognitive function. When we hike, we shift away from using GPS systems on our phones and instead rely on trailheads or natural markers to navigate. This causes us to exercise our retrosplenial cortex and our hippocampus, the parts of our brain responsible for spatially mapping our environment and memory.
By boosting the function of these important structures, hiking not only supports our present mental health but protects us from future mental declines. For example, the hippocampus is very sensitive to age-related declines, exemplified by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. By exercising our hippocampus through hiking, we help protect our hippocampi from damage in the future, preventing the development of this deadly disease.
Biking can not only benefit human health by encouraging geonavigation, but choosing to bike protects our environment. Research shows that to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, biking is 10 times more important than electric cars. The study found that shifting from driving to biking for one day out of the week cuts carbon emissions by about 7 pounds on average. This is the equivalent of cutting 6.2 miles out of your weekly gas emissions! Achieving net-zero emissions is necessary to ensure a future with a livable planet. Without a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming will exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and cause catastrophic effects.
By engaging with nature, we not only support our health but protect the health of the world around us. We can improve our cognitive health, and prevent neurological decline all while saving the energy it would take to power an elliptical by choosing to walk or hike in natural settings. Similarly, biking helps us move towards a net-zero economy while also exercising key brain regions to prevent age-related declines. This prolongs not only our lives but the life of our planet as well!