So long treadmill. Adios elliptical. See ya when the snow flies stationary bike. The siren call of Autumn beckons us with open arms into the yearning embrace of her vibrant forests and fair meadows in this country of our Great Lakes.
“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” – Jon Krakauer
“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.” – Led Zeppelin
More than the emotional and sensual enjoyment of the season, hiking is just downright healthy in wonderful ways. It is therapy for the mind and body in disguise. The sun on your face, blue sky, rustling of leaves, tickling of waves on a shore and the hypnotic shuffle of your steps feels more like rejuvenation than exercise. Recreation is re-creation.
Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, avid trail runner and associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, explains:
“The nice thing about hiking is that it exists along an entire continuum, from a gentle walk on a flat wooded path to mountain climbing,” says Dr. Baggish. “Nearly everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability, can find a hike that offers the right level of personal challenge. And hiking may even offer some unique physical and mental benefits,” he says.
Drop the Monster and Red Bull. In fact, forget caffeine altogether. If you want to excite your frontal cortex au natural, take a hike. Research shows that outdoor activity sharpens attention span and critical problem-solving skills by as much as 50%. Increased efficiency in thought process can free up plenty of time to get out.
The study also suggests unplugging from our virtual exterior brain, i.e. the smart phone, also contributes significantly to the results. “This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving,” says David Strayer, co-author of the study.
The outdoors is stimulating. Nobody tells a good story about their 30 minutes on the treadmill. Nobody would want to hear it if they did. But start telling about the antics of squirrels, the smell of pine and instant camaraderie with people you meet out there and the listener will briefly rise out of the cubicle fog of civilized living into bigger things.
Hiking can burn 500 calories an hour, even more if you head for the hills of Peach Mountain. You’re likely to extend your activity time beyond that of a gym. Rather than watching the clock while working your guts out on a machine indoors, the sights and sounds of the wilderness are as distracting as they are motivating.
It gets better.
The soft crunch leaves, sun or your face and rhythmic tread of your footsteps decreases blood pressure and cholesterol studies show. For those at high risk, a refreshing walk reduces the danger of heart disease, diabetes and strokes. Even better news is that working harder is not necessarily smarter in when it comes to diabetes. Walking downhill is two times more effective at removing blood sugars and improving glucose tolerance.
Let’s take to yet another level. There is research that suggest the physical benefits of a walk in the woods stretches beyond preventive benefits for some conditions and may even go as far as helping cancer recovery.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine reports the measured oxidative stress rates of women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. Oxidative stress is thought to play a role in the onset, progression and recurrence of cancer. The study shows that long distance hikes may improve antioxidative capacity which helps protect the blood cells of cancer patients from disease.
There is research that suggests hiking is good therapy for those dealing with depression. Sufferers feel less hopeless, depressed and suicidal.
Hiking also offers benefits for those who don’t suffer from depression by allowing them to connect with themselves and nature in a way that calms the individual with a greater sense of well-being. Dr. Baggish tells us, “There’s a real sense of peace and composure you get from being outside and away from everything.”
I’m walking alone along the paths on around Peach Mountain thinking about stuff – work certainly, needless fretting over the kids and grandkids, money, the killings in Las Vegas, who I am in this world – the usual stuff. I’m walking fast because there are things to do. Today the walk is something I have to do and not something I want to do. Another thing to tick off the list.
I enter the big pines near the radio telescope, a favorite place. A bed of dropped needles soften the path. The smell of pine, not air freshener pine, real pine. Something that never fails to stir my blood, the wind whooshing through the canopy. Dancing shadows from the late morning sun above the canopy fill the place – fans cheering their winning team.
I’m suddenly 13 again walking the woods after school. Muzzles is running ahead sniffing around for rabbits. The sun, breeze, clapping leaves and squirrels, this is what I’ve been waiting for all day. School was okay. I’ll go hang out at Randy’s when he’s home from football. Barnaby Jones is on tonight. I liked him better in the Beverly Hillbillies. All my days are yet to come.
I’m back in a flash, but not completely. I was carefree for less than a breath, but it was enough. Something has returned with me. A little bit of that “I wish I could do it over again” has stuck and the thrusting sharp end of my issues du jour is blunted. I’m rethinking things – doing it over again before I’ve done anything.
I didn’t ask for it, but my perspective has altered. I wasn’t looking for new insight, but it found me. The monsters have lost a few teeth. There’s a quaver in Goliath’s shout. And that thing under the bed is down there hiding from me, terrified I may find it.
Sometimes it’s just a play of shadows, the unusual curve of a tree, the sound of birds, their flight, another hiker in passing, the way a falling stick has caught in the branches – all gifts somehow that have changed me just a smidge.
I don’t understand how. All I wanted was to just get out and get away for 30 minutes. But it happens every time, rain or shine or blowing snow, Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, especially Fall.
As my hiking buddy Brown Kinnard puts it so eloquently: “Blue sky, white clouds, warm sun, fall colors, flowing river, sparkling lakes, birds, animals, and the health to enjoy it all with thankfulness to the Creator—what could be better?”
Easy. Just find a trail and go. Just do it. Whether a trek through the trees or a trip around town, start out short and easy. Begin with the shoes and clothes you have. You’re just going for a walk. As your passion for exploring the sights and sounds of nature increases, so will your exploration of gear and clothing.
Don’t think! Go!
For those of us in the Dexter, MI area, there are lots of choices:
- Hudson Mills Metro Park
- Dexter Huron Metro Park
- Pinckney Rec Area
- Brighton Rec Area
- Waterloo Rec Area
- Miller-Smith Preserve
- Burns-Stokes Preserve
- Trinkle Marsh Preserve
- Bauer Preserve
- Baker Woods Preserve
- Fox Science Preserve
- Scio Woods Preserve
- Sloan Preserve
- Stinchfield Woods / Peach Mountain
- The City of Dexter – just take a stroll around town!