3 Enlightening Health Benefits of Hiking and Being in Nature
“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” – Edward Abbey
As I started out on the trail, slivers of the sun shone through the tall, almost naked trees. I peered out across the calm, stillness of the lake as it glistened in the fading warmth of the autumn sun.
My two dogs, oblivious to the magic of this all, were more interested in the smells recently left at the base of a near oak tree. 😆
Suddenly, I knew this was a special moment…. a moment that needed to be captured and remembered on film. As I took out my now obsolete iPhone 3Gs, I wondered…
Why? What made this moment any more special than the other hundred hikes I’ve had around this very same lake on this very same trail?
Then it dawned on me (since the park closes for December and January each year) that this would be the last hike around the lake for 2014... Somehow this ‘last hike of the year‘ became a symbolic metaphor and an encapsulation of every hike and good time I’ve ever had here.
UPDATE 2/2/2015: My Baby Soma passed away yesterday, so this really was her last hike at the lake and a special moment to capture. Somehow I must have known that intuitively. 😥
The Last Hike Around the Lake for 2014
Ever since we discovered this little park six years ago…. it’s been a great find!
The park is based around lake Mackintosh, which is used as the primary water reserve for the city of Burlington. The park itself offers a 3 mile hiking trail through the woods and over some nice terrain.
If 3 miles is more than you plan to hike in a given day, it also offers a one mile loop trail, as well as, a half-mile trail for those who just want to take a short stroll.
The park is run by the city and has a playground for the kids, paddle boats, kayaks and tons of spots for fishing. There are plenty of picnic areas with tables and grills… even a covered area for larger parties.
Overall, it’s just a nice little place to take your dogs for a hike, go for a trail run, get a playground workout in or even take your friends and family picnicking or kayaking.
Since it’s about a five minute drive from my home, I like to take my dogs there on the weekend to let them smell, walk and get away from the house. They love to ride there in the back of my truck.
In fact, one of my dogs, Kaya, starts freaking out with her “unique and often annoying” whining and barking routine as soon as we pull into the park.
She basically sounds like a dog with ADD on crack!!! lol… she’s a special dog with special needs. 😉
We walked a little further up the trail as the sun continued its rise higher in the sky… the Golden Hour was upon us. And now that most of the leaves have fallen you can easily see the lake through the trees. I snapped a few more pics.
My 3 Favorite Health Benefits of Hiking and Walking
Before planes, trains and automobiles… people actually had to walk from point A to point B and were more fit because of it. Walking and hiking are what the human body was designed for. This is primal and “functional” exercise at its most basic form.
Walking on a flat sidewalk is one thing… yet when you get back to mother nature you have to traverse the terrain as you find it. Of course, most hiking trails have well-worn paths from so much repetitive foot traffic and regular maintenance of the trail.
Even so, you’ll find yourself stepping over roots and rocks, climbing hills, crunching leaves, avoiding mud puddles and crossing small streams or downed trees that may be blocking your path. Additionally, you’ll be dodging the occasional spider web or two.
Over the years, I’ve really come to enjoy hiking and walking. Not only is it a nice form of exercise in its own right, it also provides the opportunity for self-reflection and can be used as a form of moving meditation.
Health Benefit of Hiking #1: Exercise and Active Recovery
There have been several studies claiming that hiking is a powerful form of aerobic exercise. More than being good for your heart and cardiovascular system, hiking simultaneously builds strength in the legs and core without the higher impact forces of running or jogging.
This makes it a great choice for an active recovery workout. If you’re not familiar with the term “active recovery“, it simply means doing some form of low intensity exercise or cardio in between your strength training workouts.
Active recovery workouts are usually done on your rest or off days to get your blood flowing, reduce muscle soreness and fatigue and speed the healing and recovery process of your musculoskeletal system.
Since my old Soma Dawg isn’t moving as fast as she used to, I tend to use hiking for the recovery aspects mentioned above. That being said, hiking can be made easier or harder depending on your goals, desires and intentions for hiking.
You can turn hiking into a higher intensity workout by increasing the speed at which you hike, the distance, adding weighted backpacks or vests, hiking mountains or steeper grade hills and even adding some body weight exercises for your upper body like push-ups or pull-ups from tree limbs.
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!
That reminds me of the time my brother took us hiking in the mountains. We started off climbing crazy steep hills and then ended up having to jump from giant rock to giant rock before making it up the mountain to a waterfall. Our legs were burning by the end! Good times. 🙂
From a medical perspective, regular hiking can help lower your risk of heart disease, improve your blood pressure and blood sugar, boost bone density, improve balance and decrease depression by boosting your mood.
Health Benefit of Hiking #2: Opportunity for Self-Reflection
Often, it seems, that our days are filled with one damn thing after another. We’ve got to wake up, get ready, go to work, do this, do that, pick up the kids, take them here and then go there, cook dinner, clean the house, work out, do the laundry, and finally when we are all done… wash your face, brush your teeth and go to bed so we can get up and do it all over again.
When we are constantly doing, doing, doing we seldom have a chance to just be. Unfortunately, it is in these rare moments of quiet solitude that insights and clarity come to us. Hiking provides us with more of these moments and gives us the opportunity for self-reflection.
You know that moving your body is also good for your mind! Our bodies and our minds are totally interconnected.
Therefore, our disposition, or ‘natural mental and emotional outlook‘, also has a ripple effect throughout our body.
If we are in a state of constant stress, tension or worry… think about the havoc this is causing to your internal systems!
Hiking provides us the opportunity to leave all of our problems back in city.
As we learn to let go, clear our minds and simply enjoy the nature around us… we are creating space for self-reflection and a more relaxed frame of mind.
One of the things I like to do when hiking is count my blessings and let a deep sense of gratitude flood over my body and my mind. Gratitude is the precursor to an abundance mentality. When you appreciate and embrace your life and the people, gifts and good fortune that have come your way… you are opening the gateway to more abundance, happiness and contentment.
Hiking can be the opportunity to reflect on such things.
Health Benefit of Hiking #3: Form of Moving Meditation
Getting out of the house and onto the trail will do more than just help you physically and mentally… there are also some spiritual health benefits of hiking through nature.
Just being in nature is a healing modality all in itself. The sunshine, fresh air, and energy found in natural environments helps to nourish and encourage our bodies to heal.
Many of the Eastern wisdom traditions like Tai Chi, Yoga and Aikido (just to name a few), encourage practicing in nature. Doing so is said to increase the absorption of the powerful life energy that is all pervasive in the natural world. This powerful energy is known as Chi in Tai Chi, Prana in Yoga and Ki in Aikido.
Whatever you want to call it, this life energy is vital to our health and well-being. Our bodies take in this energy primarily through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat and also from the natural environment all around us.
This is why there’s such an emphasis on deep, diaphragmatic breathing in each of these eastern art forms and why they encourage the practice of meditation.
We all know meditation is important and provides a plethora of benefits such as taming the mind, reducing stress hormones and anxiety, boosting the immune system, increasing happiness, creativity and expanding consciousness… and some people, like the Buddha, even used it to attain enlightenment… if you’re in to that sort of thing!
Well, who says you can only meditate sitting down!?!?
Sure that’s how you’re supposed to do formal, seated meditation… and it is a great practice, for sure. However, eventually the goal is to be able to meditate and be present throughout your daily life, not just during your seated meditation practice!
One way to reach this advanced state of presence is to incorporate various forms of moving meditation into your daily routines. You can do this by taking up one of the Awakened Warrior Disciplines such as Tai Chi, Yoga or Aikido… which I highly encourage you to do.
You can also experiment with turning your daily walks and hikes into forms of moving meditation. These are called Presence Walks and, apparently, I’m not the only one doing these… here Steve Pavlina explains how:
“As you walk keep your conscious attention focused fully and completely on the present moment. Do not allow any thoughts of past or future to enter your mind. Do not imagine anything. Do not subvocalize any of your thoughts (i.e. don’t think in words).
Focus your complete attention on perceiving the present moment as fully as possible. See what you see. Hear what you hear. Smell what you smell. Feel what you feel. That’s it. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to master.”
Eventually, you can work to integrate this into your daily life. For example, as someone is speaking to you, clear your mind. Become fully present and attentive to that person. Refrain from thinking about what you are going to say next or anything else. Put all of your focus and awareness on this present moment interaction between you and the other person.
As Olivia Fox Cabane details in her book, The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, this type of presence in our interactions with others is one of the three components to developing a charismatic personality. The other two qualities being power and warmth.
As you continue the practice of taming your mind from identification with the incessant thinking, thought patterns and mental noise, you may begin to realize that you are NOT your mind or your body. You are something much more than that!
You are the consciousness that is beyond your body and mind.
No longer are you merely hiking through the woods… you are hiking through the forest of your own consciousness. One day, with a flash of insight, you awaken from the Illusion of Separation to realize that every THING and every ONE is merely a reflection of your Self in a different form.
You are not walking on some random trail… you are the trail. You are not simply observing the lake, the sun and the trees… you are the lake, the sun and the trees.
When the wind blows and whispers in your ear… who is it that is there to hear?
Do You Hear the Sound of that Mountain Stream?
To bring this post to a fitting end, I thought I’d share a short hiking story with you. I first heard this story while listening to an audio book called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.
A Zen Master was walking in silence with one of his disciples along a mountain trail. When they came to an ancient cedar tree, they sat down under it for a simple meal of some rice and vegetables.
After the meal, the disciple, a young monk who had not yet found the key to the mystery of Zen, broke the silence by asking the Master, “Master, how do I enter Zen?”
He was, of course, inquiring how to enter the state of consciousness which is Zen.
The master remained silent. Almost five minutes passed while the disciple anxiously waited for an answer. He was about to ask another question when the Master suddenly spoke.
“Do you hear the sound of that mountain stream?”
The disciple had been busy thinking about the meaning of Zen. Now, as he began to listen to the sound, his noisy mind subsided. At first he heard nothing. Then, his thinking gave way to heightened alertness, and suddenly he did hear the hardly perceptible murmur of a small stream in the far distance.
“Yes, I can hear it now,” he said.
The Master raised his finger and, with a look in his eyes that in some way was both fierce and gentle, said, “Enter Zen from there.”
The disciple was stunned. It was his first satori – a flash of enlightenment. He knew what Zen was without knowing what it was that he knew!
They continued on their journey in silence. The disciple was amazed at the aliveness of the world around him. He experienced everything as if for the first time.
Gradually, however, he started thinking again. The alert stillness became covered up again by mental noise, and before long he had another question.
“Master,” he said, “I have been thinking. What would you have said if I hadn’t been able to hear the mountain stream?”
The Master stopped, looked at him, raised his finger and said, “Enter Zen from there.”
Unleash the Power of Your Ultimate Potential,
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