If science is sure about anything, it’s that walking and nature are good for you. One recent study showed walking just 15 minutes a day can add years to your life, while a prominent neuroscientist called walking “a superpower.” Meanwhile, study after study after study shows time in nature reduces stress, boosts happiness and self-control, and makes you more creative.
Now imagine what happens if you put these two activities together?
In everyday language we call this hiking, and according to a new book by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, strapping on your boots and hitting the trails not only offers all the benefits of exercise and the great outdoors combined, it also helps keep your brain young.
Take a hike. Your brain will thank you.
Levitin’s book, Successful Aging, was just published a few weeks ago so he’s doing the usual round of media appearances (this one from PBS in which he argues against retirement was great, for example). Among all these interviews was a conversation with Jill Suttie of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center in which he mentions the outsized benefits of taking a hike.
Levitin kicks off his discussion of exercise and the aging brain with the usual refrain of scientists – keeping active in any way is good. If your elliptical trainer is what works for your schedule, lifestyle, and health constraints, then keep that up. But if you’re relatively healthy and looking for a way to keep your brain young, Levitin explains that hiking offers unique cognitive advantages.
“If you’re talking about brain health, the hippocampus–the brain structure that mediates memory–evolved for geonavigation, to help us remember where we are going, so that we can move toward food and mates and away from danger. If we don’t keep that part exercised, we do so at our own peril. The hippocampus can atrophy,” he warns.
A hike through your local park is an ideal way to keep that particular part of the brain in top form. “Being outside is good, because anything can happen. You have to stay on your toes to some degree,” he explains. “You’re encountering twigs and roots and rocks and creatures; you’ve got low limbs that you have to duck under. All that kind of stuff is essential to keeping a brain young.”
Even virtual reality exercise environments that force you to respond to the unfamiliar and unexpected have been shown to have some benefits, he adds.
Other reasons to go for a hike this weekend
All of which is fascinating if you’re keen to keep your brain as sharp as possible for as long as possible. But scientists aren’t the only experts who have weighed in on the benefits of clambering up a trail. A host of creatives and thinkers also testify that long walks in nature have a unique power to dislodge new ideas from your brain. Which may be why so many of history’s great minds, from Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs, were committed ramblers.
As writer Craig Mod put it in his ode to hiking, “walking moves or settles the mind — allowing for self discovery.” And that’s in addition to all the other benefits of just walking or nature alone.
So whether you’re looking for the next, best version of yourself, or just hoping to preserve the well functioning self you have now, you might want to consider going for a long walk this weekend. Your brain will thank you.