Outdoor exercise can do more for your brain than just the familiar runners-high. Most of us have experienced a euphoric feeling while on the trail or reaching the summit of a difficult climb. These pleasurable feelings are a result of a complex interaction of chemicals in the brain. The hiking brain uses endorphins to mask pain and dopamine to motivate goal attainment that combines to give you an exhilarated high that lasts for hours after the hike has stopped. However, recent research has shown that the hiking brain might also boost your creativity and attention.
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, researchers at Stanford University wanted to see how walking inspired the creative centers of the brain. To do this, participants were tested under three conditions; seated, walking, and walking outdoors. The participants were then given tests to measure creative thinking. An example question from the study included finding alternate uses for a button, one participant answered, “as a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, and a tiny strainer.”
What the researchers found was that creative thinking improved by an average of 60 percent while walking, and improved even more when walking outdoors. The reason for these findings is still unclear. Researchers think that hiking in nature may relax competition among different brain activities. This relaxation is believed to allow for the opening of flexible new ways of thinking that increase the hiking brain creativity.
Reboot and be Happy
Besides increasing creativity, the outdoors can also improve mental and emotional renewal while increasing positive feelings. A study published in the Journal of Psychological Science conducted at the University of Michigan found that walking outdoors improved attention and performance on difficult mental tasks. Researchers believe that walking in the city requires so much attention that the brain cannot relax. Crowded sidewalks, honking horns, and careening cars demand active attention to avoid bodily harm. This study found that natural environments offer what researchers called a, “soft fascination” that is in sharp contrast to the attention grabbing aspect of our normal urban experience. The relaxing scenes of nature allow the brain to reset and ultimately restore focus. To test this theory, researchers had participants walk a 2.8 mile wooded path. Participants were then given a series of numbers that they had to repeat backwards. These scores were then compared to scores after a similar walk in a busy urban area. The researchers found that participants scored significantly higher on the test after walking in nature. Researchers also found that the participants’ feelings of emotional refreshment after the nature walk were related to higher scores on the test.
In a related study, Iowa State University further tested the relationship between outdoor walking and emotions to determine if participants needed to walk a particular pace or time to feel good. In a study published in the journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise, participants walked for 15 minutes at a moderate pace to test the effects of outdoor exercise on mood. Previous research assumed that exercise had to be done for an extended time to experience improved emotional states. The study found that participants walking outdoors still experienced increases in both energy and positive emotions, even when conducted for a limited duration of just 15 minutes.
What these studies are telling us are things we already know, but often forget in our busy lives. We know hiking makes us feel good, we have amazing epiphanies on the trail, and we feel more energized and peaceful after a hike; even though our thighs are burning. An unanticipated finding in the Stanford study was that participants also talked more and had better conversations while walking in the outdoors. The conclusion here is that people are funny social animals born of nature, we remember this connection the second our feet hit the trail. So this weekend conduct your own experiment, grab a friend or two and go for a hike. You will not only become more interesting, you will have fun doing it.