The Unique Health Benefits of Autumn Hikes

Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

TThere is no better time to hit the hiking trails than in fall, and outdoor lovers know it. In Shenandoah National Park — where the leaves are famously on a blazing display — the number of park visitors nearly doubled from over 109,780 people to over 202,300 between the months of September and October in 2018. Cooler temperatures and epic scenery bring hikers out by the millions, but the allure of an autumn outing may also be sparked by something deeper.

John Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, explains that fall is often a psychologically complex season that’s associated with feelings of purposefulness and accomplishment. “Typically, in businesses, this is a season when initiatives get established and underway,” he says. “In academics, people are heading back to school. It’s a season when people start getting in sync with goals and working to carry them out.”

Experiencing the outdoors during autumn can serve as an inherent reminder to focus on the present, says Sharp. “The way to enjoy the fall is really to elbow out the summer and winter and make room to enjoy the season right now,” Sharp says.

With a handful of psychological factors at play, it’s understandable that autumn hikes tend to feel like a particularly cleansing experience. So much so, they might even seem to fall into the budding practice of forest bathing, a restorative wellness experience that takes place in nature.

Nicole Joy Elmgart, co-founder of Treebath, a New York City-based forest therapy program, describes forest therapy (a term used interchangeably with forest bathing) as “a mindful, sensory walk that uses the elements of nature in a therapeutic way.” She is quick to clarify that hiking and forest therapy are not one and the same. “It’s not exercise,” she says. “It’s not meant to be calorie-burning or increase your heart rate. It’s actually the opposite. It’s a very slow time to become more present in the moment and meditate.”

The concept of forest bathing (sometimes referred to as shinrin-yoku) was first introduced in 1982 by the Japanese government as a way to help soothe its overworked, overstimulated population. Over the past four years, it has picked up a significant amount of traction in the United States as a mental health practice. Today, over 700 forest therapy guides are certified through the National Association of Forest Therapy. Two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics launched Park Rx America, a nonprofit organization that aims to make “nature prescriptions” a routine element of modern health care.

“The way to enjoy the fall is really to elbow out the summer and winter and make room to enjoy the season right now.”

Studies have yet to comprehensively capture what it is about the outdoors that provides such a healing environment, but there are a few key elements thought to play leading roles. Careful exposure to sun stimulates vitamin D production, which helps boost mood and keep bones strong; intake of fresh air promotes immunity; and many of the smells found in nature (like pine trees and wildflowers) can help offset feelings of anxiety.

In the fall specifically, an element of color psychology can also potentially come into play. Red is a color typically associated with feelings of passion and strength, whereas yellow has a tendency to trigger a sense of confidence, creativity, and optimism. When immersed in a forest painted in this palette, it can set off a powerful emotional experience.

During a typical forest therapy session, a group is asked to go through “sensory invitations.” Elmgart explains, “It may be that you’re invited to notice the sounds around you or the changing of the leaves or different things that are happening in nature at that particular moment in time. In between each invitation, we meet back and share in a few words what you might have noticed or experienced. We complete the practice with a very short tea ceremony.”

While hiking and forest therapy may not be interchangeable, there are a number of ways to incorporate elements of forest therapy into fall hiking excursions. Here are three expert-recommended tips for how to go about it.

Turn your break into a “sensory invitation”

Whether it’s during a water break or once you’ve reached the summit, Oskar Elmgart, the other half of Treebath’s founding team, suggests taking a few minutes to slowly go through your five senses. “Close your eyes and notice what you feel and what you smell,” he says. “Slowly move to your sense of hearing. Try to focus on what you can hear that is close. What can you hear that is far away? In the end, you can finish it off by opening your eyes and noticing what colors you see.”

He mentions that in the fall, the array of textures in nature has the potential to feel particularly evocative. “Kicking the leaves like you did when you were a child tends to resonate strongly with the older generation,” he says. “It brings them back to childhood. All of a sudden, it can become a very emotional experience.”

Discuss your observations with a hiking partner

After this quiet moment of reflection, Elmgart encourages people to talk through what they just observed and experienced. Incorporating a dialogue is common practice during the forest therapy sessions they run at Treebath. “When you share, even if it’s with friends or strangers or guides, it helps to resonate that there is someone there with you to witness your experience,” she says.

Elmgart adds that sharing observations also incorporates an element of collective wisdom and can help to expand your point of view. “Maybe on the same walk, one person noticed the birds and another noticed a squirrel. It gives us a great sense of what’s going on around us and maybe helps everyone notice something a little bit different.”

Find one place in nature to make your own

Sharp says it’s beneficial to return frequently to a place you know well. “It’s good to have a go-to, like an old friend where you can just be,” he says. “Having that relationship with an outdoor place throughout the seasons can really enhance life for most people.”

In fall, when nature undergoes one of its most dramatic transformations, Sharp suggests observing the area’s progression and viewing it as a lesson in how to cope with change. Seeing such a vibrant, outward representation of change has the power to resonate inward. “The brain cannot appreciate anything static,” Sharp says. “It’s only when there is a change that the brain can start to pick up what it’s experiencing.” Watching all the ways in which nature learns to adjust to its new state of being has the potential to lead to a stronger sense of resilience and adaptability in other areas of life.

Cortney Clift is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about food, travel, and wellness.

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