Take a hike (in a good way) this fall

There’s no better time to get out for a walk or hike than during the month of October.  

Nature puts on a full display of fall colors when leaves on deciduous trees stop making green chlorophyll to prepare for the dormant winter. Then, the colorful red, orange, and yellow carotenoid pigments (that have been hiding in the leaves all along) come forth and show their colors.  

This blazing example of Nature’s glory is a treat for the senses. And a new study shows that walking in this autumn wonderland can actually benefit the structure of your brain—leading to improved memory, concentration, mood, and overall well-being.  

How the “people’s march” is good for the whole person 

This new study was conducted in Germany, where outdoor walks are a popular and regular pastime. In fact, in the fall, many Germans enjoy a traditional volksmarch.    

Volksmarching (“people’s march”) is a form of non-competitive fitness walking that developed in Europe during the 1960s. Today, millions of people worldwide participate in volksmarches, which usually range from 5 to 20 kilometers, following set courses on outdoor paths or trails.  

(While I was an associate medical director at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, an annual Saturday volksmarch began and ended right outside my office windows, along a trail through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. It was a festive affair, with music, bratwurst, and hot cider, handed out by members of the medical general officer staff. My daughter and I loved to join the march. In October 1990, we held a special Wandervogel “Freedom March” to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Participants got a belt buckle, which my daughter treasures to this day.)   

Of course, if you march to the beat of a different drummer, you can go off on your own—as the participants in the German study did.1   

Researchers regularly examined six healthy Berlin residents for six months. They also conducted 280 brain scans. The study focused on self-reported activity during the prior 24 hours, and specifically on any time spent outdoors before the brain scans. The participants were also asked to perform cognitively challenging tasks.    

The brain scans demonstrated that time spent outdoors was positively related to the amount of gray matter in the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex of the brain (involved in “cognitive control,” or planning and regulation of a person’s actions).  Many mental disturbances are associated with loss of gray matter in this area of the brain. 

The researchers also found that time spent outdoors helped improve participants’ mood. Even taking into account other mood-boosting factors like exercising and exposure to sunshine, participants still had improved well-being—leading the researchers to conclude that simply being out in Nature improves brain structure…which most likely benefits concentration, memory, and psychological well-being.   

In other words, it’s not just about engaging in physical activity—it’s about doing it outdoors, as I always recommend. 

How many steps do you really need to walk? 

So, take a cue from the Germans and get marching this fall. Of course, you don’t have to do a 20 kilometer volksmarch to get the health benefits of a daily walk.  

In fact, a recent four-year study of nearly 17,000 women with an average age of 72 years found that those who walked just 4,400 steps per day had a 41 percent lower risk of mortality compared to those who took 2,700 steps.2 

To put this in context, many people who don’t specifically exercise at all still manage to get an average of about 2,000 steps a day, just by going about their daily routines. So, adding just 2,400 more steps (a little over a mile of walking) per day can significantly improve your health.  

(That’s a far cry from—and much less daunting than—the arbitrary, unsubstantiated “10,000 steps a day” myth we’ve been force fed by the fitness industry and medical establishment as supposedly good for our health.)  

Since it takes about 20 minutes to walk a mile at a moderate pace, this finding falls right in line with previous research and my recommendation to engage in 140 to 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.  

Not to mention, the study reinforced that moderate walking is indeed key. The researchers noted that most of the participants walked at a pace considered slower than “moderately intense” walking. 

So, this month (and every month), take a nice saunter—not a jog or a sprint—through the fall foliage. Your time spent outdoors in Nature will benefit your body, brain, and spirit. 

Sources: 

1“Spend time outdoors for your brain – an in-depth longitudinal MRI study.” World J Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Jul 7:1-7. 

2“Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women.” JAMA Intern Med. 2019 Aug 1;179(8):1105-1112. 


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