If you are a client at our practice your Wake Forest counselor has most definitely said you might need to take a hike. And what we mean is – an actual hike outside in the woods or on a greenway. There are a crap ton of mental health benefits to getting outside, even if you can’t go far or fast (I am part of Team Sloth as a hiker – I will get there when I get there).
What is a hike?
A hike is any walk on a greenway or trail, no matter how far you go. It could be a few hundred feet to a stream. It could be a thru hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It could be anything in between. Distance is less relevant than time outside. In fact, research done at Harvard showed that as little as 20 minutes spent in nature can lower stress.
What can a hike do for me?
We already talked about how that time outside can lower stress – in fact it dramatically reduces the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It can also lower depression and anxiety. Hiking encourages mindfulness and gratitude, both of which have been shown to reduce these feelings. It gives your brain a break from all the stimulus we have in our day-to-day life.
Hiking exposes us to natural light, which can help us sleep better. Getting enough rest is key to being able to handle the stressors of life. When we aren’t rested, our window of tolerance (our ability to handle life) is squished substantially, making it way harder to manage when things go sideways. We can think of a hike as literally opening our window!
Hiking can reduce symptoms of PTSD. In fact, there are organizations that take veterans on hikes as a way to help manage and eliminate these symptoms. Warrior Expeditions is one of my personal favorites.
Hiking also can foster a social connection. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the thru hiking community – the several thousand people a year who attempt to hike big trails from one end to the other. These people have each other’s backs – from those who are attempting those big hikes to the trail angels that provide support and encouragement (if you want to see some of the thru hiker community in action, you can check out my friend Kim’s vlog of her hikes). And these aren’t the only solid humans I’ve met while hiking. Day hikers (those of us folks who are taking a much shorter walk than a thru hike) are also generally great. I’ve talked to many other hikers as I’ve slowly hiked up a mountain wondering where in the heck the top actually was. On one hike I ended up keeping pace with this really sweet retired couple and got hear about their adventures and travels as we slowly climbed to the top. In this social media world that actually fosters less socialization, these connections can be incredibly life-giving.
I’m sold. But I’ve never hiked. How do I get started?
- Joyner Park. Easy places to walk, paved paths, cool old buildings, just generally beautiful.
- Neuse River Greenway Trail. This is a paved trail that runs from Falls Lake Dam to Johnston County for a total of 27.5 miles. It has loads of great trail heads with easy access. It runs along the river and I would rate it as easy.
- Annie Louise Wilkerson MD Nature Preserve. Yes, that is a long name for a park. There are great trails here that I’d rate easy overall, as well as really cool natural playground for the kiddos. The Epps Forest Loop also has a connector to the Mountains to Sea Trail.
- Mountains to Sea Trail. This one does, in fact, go from the NC mountains to the coast. The area around Falls Lake is lovely and, as mentioned above, you can easily access the trail from Annie Louise and many other places near Wake Forest. I’d rate this trail moderate to strenuous, depending on the section.
- Appalachian Trail. About five hours from Wake Forest and totally worth the drive. There are great places to park and hike however far you like. Do know sections of this trail are remote and there is no cell service, even with the big carriers like Verizon. If you aren’t a regular hiker already it would be wise to do some research so you’re prepared. Blue Ridge Hiking Company is great if you want to try a guided hike.
These are only a handful of awesome trails to check out. Wherever you take your hike, you’ll reap the amazing benefits it has to offer.
Now you know why your Wake Forest counselor told you to take a hike!
Don’t have a counselor in Wake Forest, but need one? Feel free to reach out to us at 919-891-0525 for your free, 15-minute consultation for Counseling in Wake Forest NC.