Imagine the following aspects of a hypothetical antidepressant:
- It’s effective, both in the short-term and long-term.
- The only side effects you are likely to experience are positive.
- It does not require a prescription.
- It is readily available.
- You can use it for years and years without causing yourself harm. In fact, the odds are the longer and more regularly you use it, the more you will reap the benefits.
- In most cases, it’s FREE (or very low cost).
What if I told you that this antidepressant is not hypothetical at all? While this “wonder drug” is not a blanket cure for all of life’s troubles, it has been perhaps the most consistently helpful and beneficial mood elevator of anything I’ve ever tried or stumbled upon. It’s called: Hiking.
What is it about hiking that makes it so effective in lifting one’s mood, and even combating various degrees of depression? I suppose it doesn’t really matter (you can’t argue with results), but I suspect it is a combination of two essential elements: the endorphins released from physical exercise, coupled with immersion in nature/the outdoors. Of course hiking isn’t the only activity that meets these two requirements, but it is perhaps the easiest and most accessible. For me, exercising in a gym doesn’t even come close. There is something about being out in nature that is definitively nurturing and healing.
When I lived in Nashville in the mid-’90s, I frequented the trails around Radnor Lake, my own self-determined personal sanctuary and haven. I hiked there regularly, often by myself, and found it an amazingly consistent catalyst for feeling good. I sometimes referred to it as getting a “nature massage”. On one occasion I showed up with a Walkman (think predecessor to the iPod), figuring I’d make an activity I loved even better by adding another of my great loves, music, to the mix. Much to my surprise, I found that the music actually diminished the experience. After some reflection I concluded that by plugging up my ears in this way I was actually shutting out something, and that this detracted from the overall sensory experience of the nature massage. Even though I didn’t consciously pay attention to all of the natural sounds of my surroundings when I hiked, on some level I noticed when they were missing. After that experience, I saved my music listening for the car rides to and from the park.
Is hiking foolproof and risk-proof? Of course not. Yes, there are potential hazards: injuries, poison oak, snake bites, mountain lion attacks, Lyme disease, etc. But these risks are relatively slight, and sometimes even preventable with careful attention to what you are doing and/or precautionary measures. And of course risk is inherent to life – no matter what you do or avoid, safety is never a guarantee. Some people who have died in earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, and other scenarios did so without leaving their homes or even getting out of bed.
Be warned, though: hiking can be a “gateway” drug. In my case, hiking eventually led to: forays into camping and backpacking; century rides, marathons, and triathlons; joining groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club; increasing my awareness of, respect for, and sensitivity to the natural world; and meeting pivotal people in my life who encouraged me to try new things, helped me grow, became cherished friends, and in one notable case even became the love of my life. 🙂
Years ago I read a Rolling Stone interview with Joan Baez in which she made the comment: “Action is the antidote to despair.” She was probably referring to activism as a way of combating hopelessness, not to mention specific societal ills. But I think her words can also apply on a more fundamental level: the activity of moving your body around outside is an immediate thing you can do to feel better.