Hippocrates famously said, “Nature itself is the best physician.” I think, on some level, we all know this to be true. But as the years pass and our list of obligations grows, many of us experience a disconnect from nature. Perhaps not consciously, but as an inevitable consequence of busy lives and professional demands. We spend less time outside, and more time hunched over a desk, squinting at a laptop until the early hours of the morning, only coming up for air when we hear the familiar ping of a text message or social media notification. We often trade in forest hikes for drinks on a patio, hills in the woods for hills on a stairmaster, late night walks for the latest Netflix binge, and bike rides for Uber trips or transit commutes. For big city dwellers, like myself, the concrete jungle offers a wealth of culture, entertainment and professional potential, but limited access to unobstructed greenspace. My 600 square foot apartment in the sky in Toronto offers a small balcony reprieve in place of the backyards I grew up knowing, and it took 6 years of living here to secure a view that offered water and trees instead of the concrete wall of neighbouring buildings. And while some West Coast locales offer the best of both worlds – city life and breathtaking nature – this is the reality many of us have come to know in an increasingly developed world that favours urban convenience over rolling landscapes. So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that over the last few years, I’ve felt myself pulled back to nature. I’ve filled every nook and cranny of my apartment with plants, and adopted cycling, weekend hikes, and daily walks with my dog as primary self-care practices that have transformed my wellness routine. More importantly, over the course of the pandemic, escaping the city for a few hours each weekend to unplug and hike a nearby trail with friends and our dogs has had an incredible impact on my mental health. Now, more than ever before, I believe that Hippocrates was right. Nature truly is the best physician, and I think it’s time we all started scheduling regular check-ups into our wellness routine. Nature is a powerful tool available to all of us, and adding a weekly hike into your wellness routine can be physically, socially, and mentally life-changing. Not yet convinced? Keep reading. 1. Significant Reduction in Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Within a world that frequently favours pharmaceutical intervention over natural remedies, time spent in nature remains an undeniably effective tool in the arsenal of anyone hoping to improve their mental health. Let’s refer to the science: A 2014 study published to Frontiers In Psychology revealed that proximity to greenspace is associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety. In 2016, UQ CEED researcher Dr. Danielle Shanahan said parks offered health benefits including reduced risks of developing heart disease, stress, anxiety and depression. "If everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be 7% fewer cases of depression and 9% fewer cases of high blood pressure," she said. Moreover, research released last year revealed that spending 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature can effectively lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Finally, a 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. 2. Reconnect with Nature and Loved Ones
If you feel like you spend most of your days staring at a screen, you aren’t alone. We live in an increasingly digital world, and while technological access offers a great deal of innovation and convenience, it can also be all-consuming. Social media, though a powerful medium for virtual connection with peers and loved ones, is often a double edged sword. We are, simultaneously, more connected and disconnected than we ever have been – even with a continuous stream of notifications and digital validation, many of us feel lonely, isolated, or unable to detach from our online personas. Fortunately, time in nature offers a much-needed reprieve, and incorporating a hike into your routine once or twice a week can be truly transformative. My suggestion? Pick a day each week that you and a few of your friends can commit to a hike – treat this as you would any other meeting or obligation, and prioritize the commitment within your schedule. While on the hike, make it a rule to keep your phone stored away in your bag, only to be used for navigation or emergency purposes. Otherwise, just focus on being present, and enjoying some unobstructed quality time with friends while reconnecting with nature. Over the last few months, my friends and I have gone on a 6-10 km hike every Saturday, and it has become the highlight of my week. On Saturdays, I don’t take on any clients, I don’t schedule any deadlines, I don’t worry about incoming texts/emails or stress about the upcoming week – I simply get outside in nature with some of the people I love most, and disconnect from notifications and demands of daily life. Not only has this been an important practice for my mental health and social connections but, as a creative professional, weekly hikes have also helped to boost my creativity while working through writer’s block.
3. Transform Your Physical Health
Oftentimes, when we think about working out, we imagine a dark room packed with sweaty companions moving in sync to rhythmic music and the inspirational sentiments offered up by an impossibly fit instructor. And while this is certainly a familiar scene for anyone who has frequented a Soul Cycle or Barry’s Bootcamp class in recent time, it’s important to remember that physical fitness doesn’t always require max effort. The best routine is one which leaves room for a variety of modalities and intensities, and one which also actively prioritizes active recovery. In this way, hiking represents an incredible, low-intensity training (or active recovery) option for people of all levels of fitness. While a hike is certainly strenuous, it does not place the same strain and demand on your body and nervous system as a group fitness class or long distance run. The steady state cardio provided by hiking benefits your cardiovascular health while putting your muscles to the test of uneven terrain. This makes for a dynamic, full-body (weight-bearing) workout, and research shows that just one hour of trekking can burn well over 500 calories while improving balance and building strength in your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and more.