Why hiking is good for the soul

Coniston hike
The group hike to the 2,600ft high summit of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District

A sports psychologist from Lancaster University is urging everyone to get outdoors for their mental health after she took part in a Mind over Mountains walk.

Dr Jennifer Meggs is a Sport Psychology lecturer at Lancaster Medical School, where her research team examines the mental health benefits of holistic, integrated green exercise for mental health.

She recently walked to the 2,600ft high summit of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District as part of a group hike organised by Mind over Mountains, a charity co-founded by Alex Staniforth to support mental health and wellbeing. 

Dr Meggs said: “The day allowed me a space to just 'be' and to allow myself to completely enjoy that feeling. I felt unusually close and connected to the group who I'd just met that day after the walk, which made realise the value of taking time and space to focus on the moment and connect with others more. It definitely feels like the outdoors enhances that feeling of connection. This is something I don't get from the pool or the gym, so I'll definitely be building it into my habits in the future.” 

Her research has found that mountain leaders promote an atmosphere of safety and control, emphasising the purpose to be present and enjoy the sounds, sights and smells of nature while moving along the mountain trails. The mountain leaders offer their own feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, levelling the playing field and enhancing the connection between exercise group leaders and participants.

Participants are encouraged to share their stories as they walk, in what Alex describes as a non-threatening way without face to face eye contact and in the comforting openness of nature. Participants are encouraged to leave their worries in the mountains and return a little lighter. 

One participant said: 'I'm ex military and an ultra runner and so this kind of exercise just helps me break out of the pattern of hitting times and achievement. This is more about the enjoyment and my mind is able to just take it all in and be in the moment.' 

Another said:”It gives you perspective, while you're out here, nothing else matters.' 

Alex Staniforth is a strong believer in the human need for nature, explaining that 'people are designed to explore the outdoors'.

He described that unlike gyms, there “is less social comparison and competition in outdoor environments, the journey is a shared one that promotes connection rather than competition.”

He recently completed the Three Peak Challenge and the 400 plus miles in between, raising over £10,000 for the charity to support the mental health of the community.

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