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When you were little, chances are your mom was always hounding you to “go outside and play”. Little did you know, she was doing more than just trying to get you out of her hair – she was helping you stay healthy.
As adults, we seek alternate ways to enjoy the outdoors that differ from the tree-forts and stick fights of our past. For some of us, our nature solace comes in the form of running down trails in forests, fields, or deserts.
Ask any trail runner why they choose trails over pavement, and you’ll likely hear a number of responses (trust me, I asked. And I’ll share many of those responses with you soon). Perhaps they like the challenge, or simply enjoy the escape from busy roads. Maybe the trails help them feel connected to the earth, or bring on a sort of primal feel. The possibilities are endless. But I guarantee that almost every single trail runner you ask will include some response along the lines of “trail running makes me happy”.
I myself discovered trails and trail running after going through a nasty breakup from a very unhealthy relationship. I was broken, and lost, and I took to the trails. It wasn’t on purpose, of course, but rather circumstance. I had moved 1,000 miles away from my home to live with my parents, and Southern New Hampshire had no shortage of trails for me to run and hike on. I loved to run, and these trails simply felt like a safe haven.
That safe haven grew to become a familiar friend, and eventually, something I craved. I noticed that while I still loved running anywhere and everywhere, running on the trails brought me a sense of joy that could not be replicated elsewhere. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
5 Proven Ways Trail Running Makes You Happy
So what is it exactly about trails that causes such a boost on our mental health? Let’s dive deeper, and get messy with a little science – because you know I love to share some stats and citations.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. It is best known for producing the “fight or flight” response. Cortisol also helps control blood pressure, increase the body’s metabolism of glucose, and reduces inflammation. But, as you may have already heard, too much cortisol can be a bad thing. Chronically elevated cortisol levels due to stress can cause weight gain, severe fatigue, acne, and increased irritability, among other things.
A study by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with when they spent 40 minutes walking on a treadmill in a lab.
“Being on trails-out in nature and all of its beauty, is where I feel HOME. It is where I feel connected to myself, my spirituality, and to loved ones who are no longer here. Nature is where I feel safe and where I feel like the most authentic version of ME ” – Chelsey R.
Ward Off Negativity
You know how sometimes negative thoughts creep in, and then they seem to snowball, getting bigger and bigger, until it feels like you’re overcome by an avalanche of negativity?
Yeah, I get that too. But you’re in luck: the cure may be to hit the trails.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from researchers at Stanford University had healthy participants complete a 90-min walk in a natural setting, and a 90 minute walk in an urban setting. The results of the nature walk showed a decrease both self reported rumination ( repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self ) and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression). Yet the 90-min walk in an urban setting had no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity.
” When on the trail everything else is on hold. It’s time to relax, breathe and just enjoy nature. ” – Nicole N.
Ease the Effects of Depression
According to the World Health Organization, as of 2017 it was estimated that over 300 million people around the world suffer from depression. And while there are numerous ways to treat and combat the effects of depression, hitting the trails may be one of them.
Studies have shown that people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood upliftments when exposed to nature. Not only that, but they also felt more motivated and energized to recover and get back to normalcy
One particular study found that individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) exhibited cognitive and affective improvements after walking in a nature setting. These effects were observed even though participants were instructed prior to their walks to think about a painful negative experience (Berman, Kross, Jonides, 2012)
” The trails put the world in perspective. It becomes about breathing and moving and enjoying a single tree or a patch of dirt and often, almost always, it can put my problems into a much better perspective. Running by trees sometimes I wonder just how much they have seen in their lifetime…. Happiness for me is about peace and joy and appreciation. So yeah – this all makes me HAPPY. ” – Betsy H.
Get that “Runner’s High”
Endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids, oh my. What are all of these things? Hormones created by your body when you run that can cause feelings of happiness and euphoria, and are responsible for the elusive “runner’s high“.
And while scientists are not exactly sure why the “high” occurs, most runners that have experienced the runner’s high will tell you they are glad it happens.
” I am so happy when I am running in a remote, mountainous trail. I find myself looking around and saying WOW. So many times. The scent, the feel of the rocks and dirt. The occasional coyote, hawk, fox and other creatures. The stunning beauty. I LOVE LOVE LOVE TRAILS. ” – Cathy S.
Many trail runners report feeling grounded, one with earth, or even having spiritual moments while trail running.
Research has indicated that since humans are genetically conditioned to stay in close coexistence with nature, an absence of nature-human connection creates a sense of loneliness and unhappiness within us.
Being on the trail makes us feel “home” in a primal sort of way.
” With trail running I find a state of ultimate peace. Anything that once bothered me can’t find me while I’m among the trees, the mountains, the water and the rocks. I solve problems, I detach from issues, my mind and heart find it’s true north. I am my ultimately healthy, powerful self while on the trails. With every step I run closer to awe, gratitude, inspiration and the feeling that I am in control of my efforts and my progress therefore everything feels right in my world.” – Tanya B.
Point Being…Your Brain Simply Functions Better Outdoors.
Overwhelmed with the research studies? Me too. In fact, I honestly didn’t expect the countless articles and research papers I came across when searching for statistics and proven benefits of spending time in nature. So let’s get to the point. In addition to everything already mentioned, science has found that spending time in nature can:
- enhance attention (Taylor, Kuo, 2009)
- improve creativity (Atchley, Strayer, Atchley, 2012 )
- increase problem solving skills (Atchley, Strayer, Atchley, 2012 )
“The woods are absolute peace. I love the way the same place smells different as the seasons change. The way the light comes through the trees onto the ground. Trail running made me fall in love running.” – Christina M.
Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you didn’t actually NEED science to tell you what you already know: trail running makes you happy. But in case you were looking for any added proof to share with your friends or co-workers who ask you why on earth you spend so much time on the trails…well, hopefully this post helped!