Summer #5: Why Hike (2)? (Mental Health and Acuity)

hiking.jpgStress is a constant component not only of modern life but of being alive in general. Stress is a complex set of your body’s neural and endocrine reactions to events that disrupt the “status quo” (i.e the normal homeostasis) of your body. Many stresses are “normal” and your body’s responses to them are extremely adaptive and appropriate. Under “normal” stress you concentrate better, and function more efficiently both physically and mentally.  The transient rise in blood pressure, the increases in “stress hormone” levels, and the alterations in brain chemistry are all part of an evolutionarily tested and selected process to help you both succeed and also survive.


Stress, though, can get out of hand when it becomes a constant entity in your life or when the neural and hormonal reactions to it persist or additively accumulate far beyond their useful, functional levels. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, excessive irritability, and physical symptoms including stomach aches, chest pains, headaches and more can all be symptoms of out of control stress. Stress can be a contributing factor in hypertension, and it can also reduce the efficiency of the functioning of our immune systems making us increasingly vulnerable to disease and infection.  Stress can also lead to a long list of potentially destructive behaviors like excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, drug abuse, and a variety of eating disorders.


Modern life is full of many potential stressors. There are time stresses, work stresses, family stresses, economic stresses, and so on. Many of these stresses are quite difficult to resolve especially in a short term time period.  They can, then, frequently take on chronic, seemingly unsolvable forms that persist in generating long term, and potentially harmful physiological stress responses.   It is extremely important that each of us develop both the awareness of the signs and symptoms of stress and some ways to dissipate its potentially harmful impacts on our bodies and minds.


Exercise is a universally recognized method by which the physiological and psychological aspects of chronic stress can be reduced. Via the production of endorphins (“natural tranquilizers”) in the brain, via the dissipation of excessive blood adrenaline, via the increased flow of oxygen into the brain and muscles of the body, via any one of a hundred different mechanisms, exercise allows the body to re-set itself back closer to a resting homeostasis. Exercise does not solve all of the problems confronting us, but it does help us deal with their physiological effects in a more efficient manner.


It is important, though, that exercise not become another stress component of your life! Stressing about the need for exercise or the adequacy of exercise are both contrary to the goal of homeostatic re-adjustment. Exercise must fit a person’s lifestyle and time: and walking and hiking are two types of exercise that do just that!


A neuroscience professor of mine once told the class I was in, “your brain is less likely to wear out than it is to rust out.” That sentiment was repeated by other professors lecturing on skeletal-muscular, reproductive, and even digestive physiologies. This idea has emerged very strongly in discussions about the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia syndromes. A number of published, scientific  studies have indicated that participating in mentally engaging and stimulatory activities lessens the probabilities of the development of a wide range of dementias and mental deteriorations. The exact mechanism for these effects, and their relative magnitudes of impacts are being carefully analyzed and debated. Stimulation, though, of the billions of neurons in your brain is a significant factor in not only forming the system initially (stimulation of children via sensory input demonstrably increases the degree and complexity of interconnections between brain neurons), but in keeping the system operational (for example, the higher the educational level of achievement of an individual, the lower their chances are of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias).


This “avoidance of rust” has led to an absolute mania for crossword puzzles and other types of mental games and exercises. All of these exercises are designed to help keep the neural connections within our brains operational. All of these exercises are designed to keep our neural systems both complex and flexible in the event of any deterioration or damage.


And, all of this gets us back to walking and hiking! When you hike, don’t just put your head down and count your steps! Look around, take in the world! Use your senses to stimulate your brain along with all of the wonderful stimulation you are delivering to your heart, lungs, and muscles! Contemplation and exploration of the natural world can make crossword puzzles look like simplistic nonsense (and I do like the occasional crossword puzzle, but let’s look for more in life than writing letters inside little boxes!).

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