The Surprising Side Effect of a Winter Hike

Why you really need to spend more time outside, no matter how cold it gets.

By Emily Main

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Go hiking, then come home and write the Great American Novel? Spending two days hiking in the Tetons might not turn you into William Faulkner, but research published in PLoS One suggests that a few days in a national park may make you more creative in other ways.

The study followed 56 hikers on a four-day hike, without their laptops, cellphones, or any other technology, and the authors found that spending time communing with nature boosted the hikers' creativity by 50 percent, based on the results of a creativity test they took either before they left or toward the end of their journey.

It's all about giving your brain a break from the daily grind of technology and stress, says the study's lead author David Strayer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. "The human mind is heavily influenced by the environment we're in," he says. "It's not useful to become a slave to technology." Disconnecting from social media, cellphones, computers, and stress allows your prefrontal brain circuits, which are associated with creativity and higher-level thinking, to get restored.

But there's more to it than just taking a break from Facebook every now and then. "Nature seems to have a special impact," he says. He cites a study that took two groups of people on hour-long walks in either an arboretum or in an urban setting, and neither group had access to cellphones or technology on their walks. "The authors of that study saw measurable benefits to creativity in the arboretum, but not with hiking in the city."

There really is something about escaping to the Great Outdoors that does a body good. In addition to boosting your creativity, one study showed that a six-hour hike raises your body's levels of natural killer cells, which boost your immunity and help fight cancer, and studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin have shown that surrounding yourself with nature—even if it's just a few houseplants—makes you a more caring person. And there's no end to the scientific research showing that being in nature cuts your stress levels.

So get out and take a walk in the woods! Even if you can't carve out four days for a marathon hike, a few hours (or even a few minutes) still helps. "Think of it as a dose-response effect," Strayer says. "The bigger the dose, the bigger the benefit."

It's hard to convince yourself of the benefits of being outside when the temperature is hovering around the freezing mark. But here are a few ways to work some winter outdoor time into your day:

• Try a "moving meeting." Every cubicle-dwelling office worker yearns for a few minutes outside on a beautiful day, even when it's cold. Hold your next meeting while walking on a trail near your office. Just be sure someone brings a sturdy notepad—not an iPhone—for taking notes.

• Ditch the treadmill. Load up on some cold-weather running gear and hit the trails for an afternoon jog, even when it's cold. Not only will you boost your creativity, but you'll also get a dose of mood-boosting endorphins that can help ward off seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Feeling adventurous? Here are some ways to Exercise in a Blizzard.

Find a winter sport you love. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are great ways to appreciate nature, since you can't do them anywhere but far, far away from urban areas. No snow? Just adapt your favorite summer sports to cold-weather days (and pile on a few more layers)!

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