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Feeling Anxious? Research Shows Trail Running Benefits Your Brain

Fascinating new science out of Stanford University shows trail running can literally change your brain.

A growing body of research supports what so many trail running enthusiasts, myself included, have experienced themselves: logging your miles in nature does wonders for mental health. There’s something magical about the trails that promotes balance while seemingly melting angst and sadness away. Just last weekend, I went to Yosemite National Park on Saturday night with a racing mind. I returned on Sunday, 18 miles in my legs later, with a sense of calmness and clarity—something that previous runs in the city did not bring about.

A new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on why this might be the case. For the study, Stanford University researchers set out to learn more about the impact of physical activity in nature on rumination, or an unrelenting cycle of negative thoughts and worry associated with increased risk of depression and other mental illnesses. (If you’ve ever gotten “stuck” in a vicious cycle where one negative thought leads to another, that’s rumination—and it’s not fun.)

One group of study participants completed a brisk 90-minute walk in a natural setting; the other group took their walk, of the same duration and intensity, in an urban setting. Upon returning to the lab, the nature-walkers not only self-reported decreased rumination, but fMRI scans of their brains also showed decreased neural activity in an area of the brain associated with mental illness (the subgenual prefrontal cortex). The walk literally changed their brain. The urban-walkers, however, experienced neither of these effects.

“It seems that there is something about physical activity outdoors, in a natural setting, that decreases worry, anxiety, and other negative thoughts,” says Greg Bratman, lead author of the study. He noted that thanks to new fMRI technology, “We could actually see these changes in the brain. It was fascinating.”

While Competitor has long documented the positive psychological effects of running in general, Bratman’s work suggests that trail running in particular may provide an extra boost. “Leaving the busyness and tumult of the city for more natural settings seems beneficial when it comes to psychological wellbeing,” he says. “A trail run may offer something [for mental health] that urban running does not.”

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Though we don’t yet know the exact mechanisms by which nature causes these changes in the brain (that’s the next phase of Bratman’s research), one working theory is that unlike urban settings—with their crowds, traffic, and unpredictable loud noises—natural settings make us feel less threatened and in doing so, help turn off our evolutionarily-rooted stress response.

The Stanford research couldn’t be timelier. Over the past two decades, a marked increase in urbanization has been paralleled by a marked increase in depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders. What’s more is that even in the comfort of our own homes, many of us create “urban settings,” with multiple devices flashing, beeping, pinging, tweeting, and the list goes on and on. When we run in the city, we are simply moving from one urban environment to another. When we run in nature, we turn it all off.

Bratman’s work serves as strong scientific reminder to not underestimate the healing power of a trail run—particularly when it comes to quieting a racing mind and dulling angst. Though for many runners, the proverbial 45-minute drive (if you’re lucky) to a trailhead may seem like a hassle, the psychological benefits of a weekly trail run are probably worth it, especially if you are prone to rumination.

As refrained by Cheryl Strayed in the book and movie Wild, during periods of psychological distress, “Put[ing] yourself in the way of beauty” is often the best medicine.

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About The Author:

Brad Stulberg writes about the science, and art, of health and human performance.  Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg