The winter is a time when many of us stop going outside to walk and hike. Much of this behavior is habit, I think. It is more than possible to layer up with comfortable, warm clothing and pull on suitable boots so that we can go out on even the coldest days of winter in order to get in some very nice miles along our favorite trails and paths. You want to watch for ice patches and avoid slips and falls, of course. Some of the trails near rivers and creeks get thick coatings of ice that can persist until March! You need to find trails that stay clear or ones that are simply snow covered. A good winter hiking stick with an ice-tip on it is a great tool for a winter walk, too! Wool socks are also a good idea, and you want to be sure that your hands and face are well covered so that there are no problems with frostbite.
There are many advantages to winter hiking: the lack of crowds, the lack of ticks and biting flies, and the incredible quiet and peacefulness of the winter woods! Deborah and I have done a number of “snow hikes” with Rob and Michele and have written about them on this blog. Take a look at the Wolf Rocks hike (November 14, 2014) or the Spruce Flats Bogs hike (November 21, 2014) or the Hemlocks and Snow Fleas hike (February 2, 2014) for a feel of some really nice winter hikes in the woods.
A hike in the winter just like a hike in the summer is great therapy for your body and for your mind. Back in June 2013 I wrote two essays in which I explored a wide array of health impacts that walking and hiking can generate. Some highlights from those posts include: hiking is a good way to burn off calories, a very small percentage of Americans get any exercise at all and they/we are suffering for this (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis), stress can be reduced by even moderate exercise, and maybe even susceptibility to Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias can be reduced via regular exercise.
It turns out, though, that where you walk might also be important in maximizing the benefits of walking. In a study published earlier this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gregory Bratman added a very interesting dimension to the hiking/walking equation. Bratman studied the impact of walking on the tendency of a person to brood (i.e. to display “morbid rumination”). Specifically, he gave his subjects a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency to brood and also measured blood flow to the part of the brain associated with this obsessive behavior (the subgenual prefrontal cortex). Then he divided his study subjects into two groups with slightly different activities: one group walked for ninety minutes along a busy highway while a second group walked ninety minutes in a wooded, park-like section of the Stanford University campus. The group that walked along the busy highway had no changes in their tendency-to-brood survey or in their brain blood flow patterns. The group that walked in the quiet, leafy campus, though, had small but significant decreases in both their brooding indices and the blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortices!
A walk in the woods, then, might be able to eliminate (or at least muffle) some of our distracting, obsessive brain activity!
Another study by Hideaki Soya (which will be published next month in “NeuroImage”) tested the brain patterns of sixty Japanese men between the ages of 64 and 75 while they solved color and color name recognition tests. These tests demand high levels of attention to detail and require the employment of significant decision making skills. The part of the brain involved in these activities is primarily the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum. The relative aerobic fitness of the individuals tested had a huge impact on their specific brain activity patterns during this test. Individuals with poor aerobic fitness used their prefrontal cortices on both the right and left sides of their brains while solving their color questions. Individuals with high aerobic fitness, however, tended to use only their left prefrontal cortex while solving their problems. This second response is a more rapid and more efficient brain pattern that is characteristic of brain activities in much younger individuals. The test subjects needed to use more brain power and more time to make their decisions about the colors and color names they observed if they were not aerobically fit.
So what do these two studies add to our understanding of ourselves? Point #1: Our brain works more rapidly and more efficiently if the body that sustains it is in good aerobic shape. Physical fitness has links to mental fitness and acuity. Point #2: There is something about being in Nature that reduces our obsessions with ourselves and our existence. Being in Nature helps us put ourselves into perspective, helps us to see our place in the world, helps us to look up from the nonsense that we can become obsessed with and see much more real things.
So, get out and walk in the woods. Enjoy Nature in the winter like we do in the summer. You can warm up your feet later. Hey, take some chocolate with you for the hike! I remember reading a research paper once about the psychotropic impacts of chocolate on the brain! Do it all! You owe it to yourself!