When human beings hike, our brains benefit

Mounting evidence about climbing mountains - and foothills for that matter - show that moving your limbs is good for your brain and your whole body. John Ratey, a Harvard Medical School Associate Clinical Professor indicates that “[W]e (human beings) were hunter-gatherers…[who] moved… 10 to 14 miles [daily.]" But you don’t have to be an internationally recognized Neuropsychiatry expert to know that walking (or hiking), in nature reduces stress, increases happiness and gives a boost to creativity. In his new book “Go Wild”.

Ratey examines the ways in which connecting with our Caveman roots, through a “re-wilding” of our lives can lead, simultaneously, to improved mental and physical health.

Strap on your hiking boots to unleash your superpower

When you hit the trail, alone or with friends, your brain will thank you. 'Successful aging' is what our grandparents called it. Coincidentally, that’s the title of award-winning neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitin’s NY Times bestselling book. In it, he discusses the importance of sustaining brain health through movement. After all, our ancestors were virtually always moving either away from danger or towards food. “If we don't keep [the hippocampus… brain structure that mediates memory— evolved for goenavigation] exercised,” Levity writes, "we do so at our own peril.”

Want to get more technical about hiking?


Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), according to Science Daily is an essential protein which ensures proper cognitive functioning, synaptic plasticity in your brain and the development (and literal survival) of neurons. In layman’s terms, if you walk with at least a “moderate intensity”, BDNF production is boosted. By strengthening your brain health, you can help stave off strokes, Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative disorders.

NPR’s Ira Flatow reported that walking for 40 minutes daily, three times weekly for one calendar year, produced hippocampus brain growth for adults. The study, conducted by Arthur Kramer, and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the birth of new neurons, attributable to this level of exercise, is related to memory improvements. Kramer agrees with Levity, claiming, “[I]t’s not surprising from an evolutionary perspective that hippocampal structure… might be related to… exercise in support of better memory of spatial locations, where the food source is, where the predators are and so forth.” Brain MD Health explains further that, nutrients reach peoples’ cells via blood flow; which also removes toxins. In effect, two benefits for the price of one activity: hiking!

Casual stroll or go for a hike this weekend?

The psychology community has consistently recommended that people shift from a lazy gait along a flat trail to a more purposeful hiking mode when (and where) possible. By adding some inclines and declines, as well as some trees along the way, you’re more likely to keep your mind sharp to avoid branches and uneven terrain.

Maintaining a young brain in this manner can also unleash your imagination. Steve Jobs, the Apple guru was a big proponent of hiking through Old Palo Alto as a way to bring ideas forward in a way that was impossible to do while sitting at a desk. Whether lost in his own thoughts, or engaged in deep conversation with trusted colleagues, there certainly was magic in moving his feet! In fact, Stanford researchers have borne out this truth by testing people’s creative thinking in three states: 1) while seated; 2) walking indoors; 3) walking outdoors. The improvement was marked; increasing 60%, on average, by walking alone; and even more when the activity was taken outside. If people are more relaxed, during a nature hike, the Stanford team theorized that competition for normal brain activity required to navigate the world is minimized. The byproduct becomes creative thinking that adjusts quite naturally to new ways of problem-solving.

While Jobs envisioned many technologies that have become part of our everyday lives, he can’t claim credit for inventing the idea of hiking to expand one’s creative thinking. Aristotle, himself, was known to “walk about”. He literally lectured to students, the group strolling along the walkways (known as peripatoi); and thereby created the Peripatetic School. It appears that powerful ideas can emerge as a result of hiking, and transform generations of people.

So… what are you waiting for? Why not go hiking yourself, or with friends and colleagues?