Green Exercise: Hiking for Happiness & Health
Green exercise, activity that takes place outdoors in natural environments, is growing in popularity. It is well known that physical activity has a plethora of health benefits for those who participate in exercise, although, more research is being conducted on the benefits and synergistic effects of engaging in movement outdoors! One of the most popular forms of green exercise millions of Americans partake in each year is hiking as it serves as a low-cost, accessible, and social way to exercise without it really “feeling like exercise.”
In a country with the highest percentage of their population qualifying as sedentary (~43%), new forms of exercise that motivate individuals to move are necessary (1). Hiking is a fantastic alternative to treadmill running or stationary biking, which are fantastic means of improving cardiovascular fitness, but with the added health benefits of taking place in nature. More and more pieces of literature are presenting findings that illustrate simply being exposed to nature can impart health benefits. As an example, the increasingly popular activity of forest bathing (Shinrin Yoku), a passive activity where one “connects” with nature around them, in some Asian countries like Japan has been shown to exhibit a host of positive effects on the human body: decreased systolic blood pressure, decreased stress levels (measured through prefrontal cortex activity and salivary cortisol), deactivated sympathetic nervous system (measured via urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline levels), and strengthened immune system (measured via enhanced natural killer cell activity and intercellular anticancer proteins) (1).
An additional investigation conducted by Niedermeier et al. sought to analyse acute effects on affective responses of a three-hour outdoor PA intervention vs. sedentary controls and indoor treadmill conditions. Through a randomized crossover design they were able to showcase significant improvements in positive affect responses demonstrated by augmented scores using a multitude of subjective outcome measures (2). Mood and mental health are additional facets of health that can be improved with green exercise like hiking!
With more and more being known about added health benefits of exercising outdoors, many healthcare practitioners are beginning to write prescriptions for outdoor activity in hopes of engaging their patients in activities that promote improved overall wellness. As physical therapists who are experts in exercise and movement analysis, we are aptly poised to offer such prescriptions. We can better educate our patients and advocate for this type of activity when we increase our understanding of local offerings for green exercise and better familiarize ourselves with appropriate hiking safety tips and recommended gear for novice and adept hikers.
Speaking of recommendations, I wanted to provide you with some local gems you can explore if you want to begin engaging in a green exercise program to reap the benefits you may have learned about (or already knew about) in this blog. I would like to note, it is always a good idea to consult with your physical therapist or physician before embarking on a new exercise program to ensure other confounding comorbidities and conditions are appropriately considered to modify your exercise prescription as applicable.
- Wissahickon Valley Park: This beautiful greenscapes embedded right outside center-city Philadelphia contains 2,042 acres of parkland in Northwest Philadelphia, including the Wissahickon Creek from its confluence with the Schuylkill River to the northwestern boundary of the city with eastern Montgomery County. https://fow.org/
- Pennypack Trails: is a rail trail that travels through wooded parks in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties along Pennypack Creek,. The trail runs 5.4 miles from Rockledge north to Byberry Road near Bryn Athyn along the former alignment of SEPTA's Fox Chase-Newtown Line. https://www.traillink.com/trail/pennypack-trail/
- Lorimer Park: a 230-acre public park in Abington Township, Pennsylvania. The park, a bequest from George Horace Lorimer, is connected to Pennypack Park in Philadelphia County, and the Pennypack Creek runs through both parks. Both paved and dirt trails are available to explore! https://www.montcopa.org/872/Lorimer-Park
Written by: Kyle Kammerle PT, DPT
- Mitten D, Overholt JR, Haynes FI, D'Amore CC, Ady JC. Hiking: A Low-Cost, Accessible Intervention to Promote Health Benefits. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;12(4):302-310. Published 2016 Jul 9. doi:10.1177/1559827616658229
- Niedermeier M, Einwanger J, Hartl A, Kopp M. Affective responses in mountain hiking-A randomized crossover trial focusing on differences between indoor and outdoor activity. PLoS One. 2017;12(5):e0177719. Published 2017 May 16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177719