In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.
Walking in nature helps me destress, reprioritize, feel more energy, and boost my chances of living longer.
A new study finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
Another study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that walking can lead to a longer life. And you don’t even need to aim for the magical (and completely arbitrary) 10,000 steps per day. The benefits of walking are relative: If you’re only getting about 2,000 steps per day now, getting to 4,000 will come along with some added benefits.
This new study found that people who took 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70 percent lower risk of dying from all causes during an 11-year follow-up, compared to those who took fewer steps.
Related: The Power of Mindfulness
Researchers found incremental benefits when people took more steps which ultimately began to taper off around 10,000.
They also found that speed didn’t matter. Step intensity, or the number of steps per minute, didn’t influence the team’s findings. In other words, a slow saunter could be just as beneficial as a quick walk. The key was the number of steps.
The researchers didn’t really examine how walking contributed to a longer life. That said, physical activity is linked to better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, weight reduction, lower blood sugar, more efficient use of cholesterol, and better brain health. And all you really need is time and a pair of comfortable and supportive walking sneakers that fit well!
When I became aware of mindfulness practices in tandem with hiking, my time in nature took on new meaning.
Mindfulness can be explained in a lot of different ways, but most simply, it’s the ability to be present and aware of the current moment. It’s bringing awareness to what you are directly experiencing through your senses.
Similar to mindfulness, many studies tie nature therapy, or ecotherapy, to increased awareness and decreased stress. Research has even tied nature to increasing the part of our nervous systems that helps our minds and bodies relax and calm down after being provoked. No wonder I fell in love with mindful hiking: Mindfulness and nature are two of the best strategies especially when combined—available at my fingertips—to relieve stress and re-focus.
So let’s get into how. Whether you’re a mindfulness beginner or an experienced pro, mindful hiking can be both a great entry point and a great way to take your mindfulness practice to the next level.
Set an intention. Mindful hiking is intentional beyond briefly noticing a leaf or an interesting rock as you hike. So, set your parameters before you start. Are you going to practice mindfulness for three 15-minute intervals? Are you going to start your practice from the beginning of the trailhead or after you get into your hiking rhythm? Make sure you have a plan so that you can be as focused as possible once you start.
When I walk—which I do almost every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether on the trails through the forest or looping the campground—I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace several times in a single walk. There is an appeal in such recursiveness as it sharpens my observation skills. But I walk to observe and think more clearly which means to walk with the ever-broadening scope of attention to reality.
I spend a lot of time on my computer, writing. So to boost blood circulation and keep fit, I walk the trails up and down and around. And I believe it behooves us old fogeys to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how tiny, to keep our brains in gear.
Sometimes to help me be intentional, I’ll include an affirmation to set the tone for my mindful hike. I might say to myself: “I don’t need to be anywhere else right now. I can take this time to focus and be in nature.” At first, this will feel a bit awkward, but you’re just reminding yourself of your purpose.
Remove distractions. Once you’re ready to start your mindful practice, try to remove unwanted distractions. This will help you to focus and be in the moment.
For example, if you have made it a goal to practice mindfulness for a certain amount of time on your hike, pick a point in the distance and practice mindfulness until you reach that tall tree, large boulder, or giant saguaro. If you’re a hiker that loves music, put the headphones away while you’re trying to be in the present. Being focused requires more energy than you think. Removing the distractions in your control can help you.
As you begin, take a physical inventory of how you feel. Notice your body. What muscles are tight? Where are you feeling fatigued? Where are you feeling strong? Notice your mind. Are you feeling foggy? Are you focused on other things? Taking a physical inventory helps you see the impact of your mindful hike as you compare it to how you feel at the end of your practice. It can also help to take those things that try to tug at our focus, acknowledge them, and set them aside as we move into our mindful practice.
Take several deep breaths. Try breathing in for four counts, holding for two, and exhaling six. Do this as many times as you like. Your breathing will flood the body with oxygen which helps to ground you in the present and relax as you begin to focus on your senses.
Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds
As you begin to deepen your mindfulness, your senses become the entry point to the next phase of your practice. Focus on one sense at a time. Notice what you can see. A leaf dancing in the breeze. A leftover snow patch from winter. The outline of a lake in the distance. Narrow your focus to one specific thing. Trace the outlines of the object with your eyes. Take your time. Next move to the details in the center. What lines do you see? What colors are you noticing? Think about all the details you observe.
Softly take your attention from a specific object and move it to what you smell. Take a couple of deep inhalations and notice all you can with each. The wet soil from recent rain or mountain run-off. The scent of the deep forest. Notice how the smells change as you continue your walk down the trail or as you take several deep breaths.
Slowly take your attention from what you smell and listen to what’s around you. First, focus in on sounds closest to you—a branch cracking close by or your steps on the trail. Next, extend your attention out farther. What do you hear in the distance—the low rumbling of a waterfall or a bird up high in a tree?
Related: Hiking Arizona
After you have trained your ears to be active and take in the surroundings, notice what you can feel. Focus on what muscle groups you’re using to hike. Notice how your feet feel in your hiking boots. Feel how the air brushes past the skin on your face as you move or how the breeze floats by as you’re still.
As you meditate on your body, take a final scan of how you feel. Do you feel calmer? More focused? Is your body more relaxed as you have walked along the trail or rested in a still spot? Use this as a time to do a post-practice inventory.
Mindful hiking has become one of my favorite ways to destress. Unlike meditations where you sit and close your eyes, mindful hiking allows you to be out in nature and its healing powers.
For me, sometimes the motivation for walking in nature is to escape our fast-paced world but mindful hiking leads me to escape in a new way. I can escape from my stress, negative feelings, and restlessness while still remaining present in my body and in the present. Mindful hiking is an easy addition to any outing and though it may take some extra effort, I hope you enjoy feeling less stressed and more grounded as you practice.
I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.