I absolutely love getting out and hiking in the deep woods for not only great exercise, but also as a means to drastically reduce the stress in my life. At fifty five years old, I find myself feeling like a kid again when discovering new trails. It matters little whether the trail is easy with a well prepared walkway. Or a tough one as in today. I completed what turned into a grueling eleven mile hike on a completely natural trail that ranged anywhere from moderate to difficult skill levels to navigate.
A good portion of my hike today was on very rocky paths that took me up and down very steep hills. This picture does little justice at displaying how steep the trail was.
I chose this trail today for it’s level of difficulty. I embrace challenge. Over coming tough challenges helps us to grow as individuals. When we kick a challenge in the ass and find success, it bolsters our confidence to do even bigger and better things in life. Traversing this rocky trail without rolling an ankle was about as tough as some of my weight training sessions. Getting through obstacles such as steep hills with loose rocks and wet clay brings the same satisfaction as I receive in my weight room when I squat down with a heavy barbell on my back, and then manage to stand back up in order to complete another rep or two.
Creating challenges for ourselves to defeat helps us to also overcome other life challenges. We may have a tough job that is a daily grind physically, or mentally. Or we may have very difficult circumstances in our homes such as caring for critically ill family members. Being capable of overcoming great physical challenges might not make our jobs or home lives any simpler, but the confidence we earn through getting through overcoming goes a long way in keeping our stress levels down. When we are confident, we can face the day without fear. When we are confident in ourselves, we can keep chaos at bay. When we are confident in meeting the most difficult of challenges head on, we become capable of maintaining a cool demeanor when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan. My hike today was tough enough to make me realize that everything else I was going to face this weekend pales in comparison to ascending a twenty four percent grade hill on a path that was covered with loose rocks, or slicked up with wet clay. There were points on this hike, climbing the steep terrains, where my legs were beginning to spasm from the the exertion along with my electrolyte balance being a little off. The spasms were quite painful, yet comforting as I knew that nothing else in my day was going to challenge me as much as I had challenged myself.
Of course not every length of todays trail was difficult. I did have a few areas that were quite the respite from that which was kicking my ass. AS much as I embrace the challenge of difficult exercise, I also enjoy just being in the outdoors on an easy path where I can just take in the nature that surround me. I love these trails over the course of the year where you can watch as the trees and undergrowth all come back to life in the spring, the greenness of the summer months, followed by the beatiful colors of fall. Even the winter months bring joy and stress relief as with all the vegetaion going dormant for the cold weather, this time of year affords you more opportunity to see the wildlife what call these woods their home.
There is actually very good reason why being outdoors in the woods makes us more relaxed and happy people. The Japanese have a practice called Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku is a practice that celebrates the health improving qualities of the forest.
There have been studies conducted which have confirmed that spending time out in the woods or forest can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms, and hostility. I believe this as I have never, not once, have I encountered anyone on a wooded trail that seemed to be anything other than content and happy. I’m not saying they do not have stressful difficulties in life, hell I have my difficulties along with Post Traumatic Stress too. Yet the woods are soothing to anyone who ventures out and set their minds free to enjoy nature in it’s grand splendor.
Studies have shown that a day in the woods can help you sleep better and make you feel more lively while you are out. A day in the woods has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and to lower your blood pressure and pulse rate.
Studies have shown that even just the smell of trees has positive health benefits. Chemicals secreted by trees, called phytoncides, have been linked to improved immune defense as well as a reduction in anxiety and an increase in pain tolerance.
Other studies have shown that children with ADHD who play in a green outodoor environment, rather than inside, have a decrease in thier symptoms. I’m not sure why this even requires a study to figure out as playing outside forces a child to learn to use their imagination to expand upon their natural creativity in order to have fun. Who can argue this point. Is their anything healthy or creative about allowing your child to sit on the duff, playing video games while snarfing down sugary sweet treats you likely bought for them. It is not rocket science to see the change in children over the last couple of decades where it is no longer unusual for a child to live an obese and sedentary lifestyle their parents have foolishly given them. If you want to do your children a huge favor in life, get rid of all the snacks, unplug their electronic devices and make them go outside to play. My God, we have children and adolescents living on psychotropic drugs in this modern world, when what they really need is to discover life as it is meant to be lived.
You can bet that kids who are allowed, and encouraged to be active outside are on fewer psychotropics than chldren who are allowed to vege our in front of their televisions. I can say with certainty that playing in the woods as a young boy helped me to develop my problem solving skills for life. Building tree houses and secret forts to hang out in with buddies, along with building temporary dams down at the creek in order to have a private swimming hole were the order of the day. We partook in all of these activites and grew into well adjusted adults.
Being outdoors in the woods means there is a fair degree of exercise taking place. Physical exercise is a proven solution for many ailments, including fatigue, depression, anxiety and of course obesity. Combining the benefits of movement in a wooded environment is a healthy method of overcoming many of your ailments in life. If you want to do one really healthy thing for yourself today, get your butt outside and go for a good walk around your neighborhood, or even better, go take a hike in the woods.
If you are interested in taking your hikes up a notch, read our article on the benefits of using trekking poles here.