Peak Happiness and Nature Rx

My Mom and I are in Phoenix for a three day weekend to visit my Grandma. I arrived Friday night and had a few hours Saturday morning to myself before my Mom’s flight arrived. I really wanted to get in some exercise and not just a run around the hotel’s block, so I drove out to hike Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale via the 101 North. There is a section, part of the Pima Freeway, called the Path Most Traveled, where the noise walls are beautifully inlaid with textures and made into a rich relief featuring cacti, lizards, and desert flora. Frustratingly, one can only take eyes off the road for so long to admire the details.

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Image courtesy scottsdalepublicart.org

The trail at Pinnacle Peak Park is 1.75 miles each way, has moderate ups and downs, and a more strenuous switchback section that is roughly one third of the round trip hike. I embarked on the trail around 10:15 and made it back to the vehicle at noon. The temperature for those two hours was a dry! 85 degrees. Not bad at all. Many people were on the trail, and I would say it was almost crowded.

Pinnacle Peak Header

The desert flora captured most of my attention. I added three new plants to my mental encyclopedia botanica: the Buckhorn and Teddybear Cholla and Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. Among this flora, I spotted three Michigan fans and even got a “Go Blue” exchanged back from a fellow devotee.

teddy cholla
Teddybear Cholla

Why Hike?

Taking a walk in nature has both physical and mental perks.  Trails are often softer than concrete or asphalt, so hikes are a great way to burn calories without too much stress on the joints. Research also shows that spending time in nature increases attention spans and our mental acuity.

Our lives are dominated by mobile technology; our phones are always on and nearly attached to us. This increasing connectivity employs cognitive functions like directing attention. Directed Attention (DA) is a mental resource in limited supply. When it expires or is fatigued from too much stimulation and multi-tasking, we experience the three I(s): irritability, impulsivity, and impatience. As a result of low DA, we end up making poor decisions, stop acting polite in social circumstances, and cannot fully listen to our partners or children. How do you get your DA back? Studies have found that walks and exposure to natural settings can replenish our fatigued attention spans and boost our creativity.

Research out of Stanford found that a ninety minute walk in nature can ward off stress and depression. Three dozen city dwellers, with no past history of mental illness, either took a walk in nature or along a busy three lane road. Researchers compared self-assessments of the walkers and conducted brain scans before and after the walk and found that those who walked in the green space exhibited lower levels of rumination. The brain scans demonstrated decreased activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex linked to how our brains process and feel sadness, remorse, guilt, and rejection.

So for those worry warts like myself, hiking is a great way to leave loose ends behind  and focus on the beauty and calming peace of the outdoors. Walking in a natural area is a great way to clear the mind and allow the brain’s directed attention to rest.

trail 2889 peak

The Doctor’s Rx

Our disconnect with nature has gotten so low, that we have to be told like children to go spend time outside. Pediatrician Robert Zarr started prescribing nature to patients through the community health program he started called DC Parks Rx in partnership with the National Park Service. His program designed initially for children has been expanded to adults. Zarr’s program relies on data that ranks and grades local parks on such things as access, cleanliness, and safety. For his Nature Rx concept, Zarr recognizes the forward thinking of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park in New York and Cherokee Park and Park System in Louisville, KY, who believed parks were meant to be places of refuge from the noise, pollution, and hustle and bustle of industrialized cities and that parks should be made publicly available to all classes and races.

Web MD lists the benefits of hiking:

  • Lowers risk of heart disease
  • Improves blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Boosts bone density
  • Builds muscle strength in the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and the muscles in your hips and lower legs
  • Strengthens core
  • Improves balance
  • Helps control weight gain
  • Boosts mood

Have you visited a local or regional park this week?

Bratman, Gregory, J Paul Hamilton, Kevin Hahn, Gretchen Daily, and James Gross. Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation. Stanford. 2015.

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