Take a Hike

Tracey Carney and Granddaughter

By Tracy A. Carney

A Nature Prescription 
Imagine discovering something that radically improves your overall mental health and physical wellness. Like many others, I had spent years receiving mental health treatment: inpatient hospitalization, day treatment programs, and medication regimens. While I made some progress with these treatments, in 2009 I discovered something that radically improved my health and wellness. A friend invited me to hike on the Appalachian Trail. She was going to hike 171 miles from Fontana Dam, N.C. to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Now you must understand, I had just turned 50 and had never walked 10 miles on a road, let alone in the mountains. So, with no hiking experience, I said yes. Together my friend, her golden retriever and I hiked for 21 days and completed a 171-mile section of the Appalachian trail. To tell you this hike was life-changing would be an understatement. Everything in my life changed after this experience. It was not just a walk in the woods--climbing 5,000 ft mountains was the most physical exertion I had ever experienced. Hiking 10 miles a day, every day, caused my depression to lift unlike any medication. Living away from the lights and noise of civilization, living among the trees, rising with the sun, hiking all day, and getting into my tent at dark allowed me to experience restful sleep. Getting adequate sleep had been a constant battle for me but I now knew what a circadian rhythm was! Another benefit of hiking was losing weight, the weight I had gained from years of inpatient hospitalizations and medications. Standing on a mountain top, it had just taken me three hours to climb and seeing the vast beauty of the wilderness is still one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. These are the times I feel most connected to God, with nature as the grand cathedral. Out on the trail, I found myself again. I was not a consumer, a psych patient, or a person in need of care. I was a strong woman, and I was a hiker, just like everyone else. I found freedom from the stigma that comes with mental illness.

A Wellness Path 
After this experience, I knew I had found an important wellness path, long distance hiking in nature. That was 14 years ago and to this day, at age 64, I still hike a lot. I have hiked the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail and many other long-distance trails. This type of exercise has allowed me to manage depressive symptoms, kept me physically fit and ended my need for medication. Let me be clear, I believe in medication, but for me, if disciplined exercise outdoors works just as well or better, I will choose exercise over the use of medication. I began to wonder, am I the only one who has experienced this? Is there any research that proves or shows that exercising outdoors makes you feel better? I went on a quest to find out  

Show Me the Research 
I began to look at research studies on this topic and I was shocked at what I found. There was not one or two studies, but hundreds of studies on the mental and physical benefits of exercising and spending time in nature. This baffled me because in all my mental health treatment, I never had a doctor or healthcare provider encourage me to spend time outside. The mental health treatment I received was always provided indoors or on locked wards. The only time patients were allowed outdoors was to smoke. I want to share with you what I learned on this search. Research shows that people who spend just 20 minutes a day in a nature setting experience: Increased productivity Decrease in depressive symptoms/exercise as effective as antidepressants. Improved mood and elevated self-esteem Lower blood pressure & cortisol levels Improved sleep and concentration Increased social interaction/ a sense of community. The healing power of nature has been recognized for a long time. In the mid-19th century, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, wrote about the benefits of spending time in nature. They advocated to preserve wilderness areas for the public good. There are over four hundred studies on the health benefits of spending time in nature.

Park Rx 
These positive research outcomes have caused the health and nature movement to grow in the U.S. There is now a focus on programs and interventions that include a healthcare provider who encourages the people they serve to spend time in nature to improve their health and wellness. Park Prescription or “Park Rx” programs are gaining in popularity. These programs encourage physicians to “prescribe” physical activity in park settings. Physicians educate people on the health benefits of spending time in nature, connect them to near-by parks, and together set goals with information including: the activity, day/days of the week and for how long. The physician then includes this written goal/prescription in the person’s overall treatment plan. I hope that one day, soon, we hear our doctors and therapists say things to us like: “Get Out” “Take a Hike” “Get Lost” and “Be an Outsider” and we would become 100% compliant and do just that!