Hike for Brain Health

| Graceful Health
George Terwilliger, MD

Graceful Health for Brattleboro Reformer, 6/19/2020

During these COVID times, many of us are experiencing increased anxiety and even depression. This is understandable given the fear, uncertainty, isolation, lack of exercise, and disrupted routines of the day. One of the best ways to combat mental health challenges is to engage in healthy, life-affirming activities such as outdoor exercise, something Governor Phil Scott endorses.

Hiking is a particularly good activity for Vermont residents due to the abundant, often uncrowded local trails and the mental health benefits of exercise combined with being in a forest.

No doubt, you’ve heard that exercise is good for your body. However, the evidence is even better that physical activity is especially good for the brain:

  • Exercise wards off dementia.
  • Walking can boost memory, creativity and problem-solving. The brain seems to adopt a totally different style of thinking that may lead to insights you might not get at the desk.
  • Regular walks were an intentional routine of many brilliant people:
    • A daily walk was sacred to Albert Einstein. Allowing his mind to wander during walks often brought solutions regarding the universe’s most vexing mysteries.
    • Similarly, Darwin took 45-minute walks three times daily, believing they provided insights regarding the origin of species.
    • Beethoven favored “long, vigorous walks” and carried a pencil and blank sheet music.
  • It is well documented that exercise eases anxiety and depression. When The Brattleboro Retreat was founded in 1834, physical activity was a cornerstone of their treatment regimens. The Retreat built miles of trails still in use by the community to this day.

Evidence suggests we benefit more from exercise done in nature rather than indoors or in urban settings. Advocates believe that spending time in forests, sometimes called “forest bathing,” appears to have therapeutic benefits. Researchers found that:

  • Spending 20 minutes in a park boosted feelings of well-being for 100 adults surveyed.
  • Walking 15 minutes in a forest improved mood more than 15 minutes in an urban setting. Attention scores were better after the forest walk, too.
  • Several studies found that spending time in a forest lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, better than other activities.
  • Forest therapy appears to lessen depression in adults.
  • The aromatic substances produced by plants and trees have been linked with reduced inflammation and brain protection benefits.

It would appear then, that combining physical activity and “forest bathing,” something most of us call hiking, is doubly beneficial. I try to get out of the office every day for a 20-minute hike behind the hospital. I find this clears my mind and often makes difficult problems easier to solve.

Einstein also found that walking with others was a great way to stimulate meaningful and deeper conversations. His ambulatory conversations with the greatest minds of the day are the stuff of legend. While COVID-19 has called into question the wisdom right now of close companionship, gentle hikes can be a good time to connect with distant family by cell phone while using ear buds. I find that during my strolls, I become a better listener and conversationalist.

I encourage you to get out there and hike. No matter the shape you’re in, you can enjoy many benefits even from a short walk. As you “bathe” in the forest, the stagnant things may fall away, leaving you feeling more alive and better equipped to handle “civilization.”

To hike safely, remember these tips:

Maintain physical distancing by trying less popular hiking trails. If you can’t stay at least 6 feet apart, wear a face covering. Also, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands liberally.

Remember: tick-borne illnesses are still a threat, and ticks do not practice social distancing!

  • Avoid brushy areas with high grass. Stay in the middle of trails where the path is clear.
  • Use effective tick repellents on your skin and clothing.
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can easily spot ticks. Check skin, clothing, gear, pets and children for ticks after time outdoors.  Remember, ticks may be as small as a poppy seed.
  • Remove a tick as soon as you discover it. Prompt removal reduces your risk of disease.
  • Shower within a few hours of being outside.
  • Put your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks.
  • For more information, visit

What to bring: If your hike is more than an hour, bring water to avoid dehydration. For mountain hiking, bring warm clothes. The top may be several degrees colder than the trail head.

And remember: not all locations have cell coverage, so tell someone where you’re going. If you become injured, it will help with your rescue.

Bio: George Terwilliger, MD, is Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, Emergency Medicine Physician and Director, and Hospitalist Medical Director. Board Certified in Family Medicine, he is a graduate of theUniversity of Vermont College of Medicine and completed his residency in Family Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, MA.