Two or three times a year, 63-year-old Tom Casey, a retired English teacher from West Sayville, N.Y., leads a group of hikers, most of them 50 and over, on a four-mile walk through hallowed literary ground: West Hills County Park on Long Island, located next to the birthplace of the poet Walt Whitman.
Whitman himself, born in West Hills in 1819, once walked some of these same trails as he mused on the beauty of nature and the meaning of life. At the end of the hike, the group gathers by a plaque to Whitman, where Casey reads some of the poet’s work. For the hikers, lines such as “I see my soul reflected in Nature” or “Give me again O Nature your primal sanities” not only extol the power of the outdoor experience, but define the aspirations of a generation.
Whitman was onto something
Whitman, modern research is showing, was onto something. Communing with nature, as the poet and his contemporary Henry David Thoreau were famous for doing and writing about, can help improve your memory, focus and attention.
While Whitman might not have recognized the terms used by psychologists at the University of Michigan when they talk about how time in the outdoors was found to improve “cognitive function,” he no doubt would have embraced their conclusion, as do Casey and his compatriots.
“When you read Leaves of Grass, you find that he uses the word ‘senses’ very frequently when he’s writing about nature” says Casey, president of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. “It’s in almost every passage when he refers to nature, about how alive he feels, and his senses take in so much. I think this is of a piece with the study.”
In the study, published in the December 2008 edition of the journal Psychological Science, 38 participants were assigned to take a 50- to 55-minute walk in the tree-lined Ann Arbor Arboretum or in the city’s traffic-heavy downtown area. Afterward, they were given tests to evaluate their mental acuity. The researchers found that the attention and memory spans of those who had walked in the arboretum's natural setting improved by 20 percent.
Respite from sensory overload
Why? “Most nature walks have stimulation that attracts attention automatically, but does so softly,” says the study’s lead author, psychology graduate student Marc Berman. “It grabs your attention, but allows you to think about other things at the same time, thereby allowing for reflection.”
The walk in the woods, as opposed to one down a busy thoroughfare, tends not to bombard you with stimuli that require an effort to tune out—sirens, car horns, billboards. By allowing our minds a respite from the typical sensory overload of an urban environment, time spent in nature “tends to be restorative,” Berman says. “It allows for reflection and mind wandering, while at the same time offering interesting things to look at.”
In other words, your mind can engage in a sort of beneficial “active rest”; free to attend to things of interest, free to reflect and wander, but without simultaneously working to tune out unwanted distractions.
No matter the weather
What’s more, the benefits did not depend on the weather, researchers found. Subjects who took a walk on a balmy 80-degree summer afternoon experienced the same benefit as those who trudged out on a cold 25-degree winter morning. The only difference was that participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and summer than in the dead of winter.
Now with fine summer weather to entice them, increasing numbers of older hikers are taking to the woods, beaches and mountain trails. Continuing a trend evident for several years, the number of day hikers ages 45 and over increased by 11 percent between 2007 and 2008, from 10.3 million to 11.5 million, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report. Even greater increases were tracked among that age group in other outdoor activities, such as backpacking and camping—this at a time when overall outdoor participation was down among some younger age groups.
Physical and psychological benefits
Whitman’s celebration of a walk in the woods as mind-expanding, consciousness-raising, soul-soothing is something that Casey, a hiker for 35 years, can well understand. “Being outside in a natural setting makes us feel more connected to life in general and sharpens the senses,” he says.
Of course, the benefits of walks in the woods or along the beach are physical as well as psychological.
Experts say this kind of weight-bearing exercise improves coordination and muscle strength, and even protects against osteoporosis. “Trail walking, at least when not overdone, is very beneficial,” says Jonathan Chang, M.D., clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. He says it elevates the mood as it gives you a chance to explore. And the soft paths through the woods “reduce wear and tear on legs and feet.”
A study conducted several years ago in Austria looked at how a three-week hiking vacation affected adults with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that occur together increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The 71 male volunteers ages 33 to 66 went on 12 hikes over the period. Body weight, body fat, cholesterol and blood pressure among the hikers were significantly lower at the end of the three weeks. Their low-key conclusion? “A hiking vacation can be recommended.”
Boomers’ Woodstock connection with the outdoors
The salutary effects of being in nature and the cognitive benefits can be found among people of any age (the subjects of the Michigan study were undergraduates) and at any time of year. However, these findings may have particular relevance to boomers who already have a strong generational connection with the outdoors—a connection symbolized this summer by the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival held Aug. 15 to 17, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, N.Y.
“I don’t think it was by accident that the high watermark of the ’60s generation, Woodstock, took place outdoors,” says Ron Watters, professor emeritus of outdoor studies at Idaho State University. A rejection of modern society, and a longing to “get back” to nature was a central tenet of the counterculture that so many boomers embraced in that era. Now, Watters says, boomers are returning to nature, either alone or in small groups.
Many of those hitting the trails, Watters says, are hoping to experience the same kinds of things that Whitman wrote about; that Casey and his band of hikers celebrate; and that the University of Michigan study has helped to better understand and quantify. “It’s perfect!” Watters says about the dotted line between the Whitman hikes, the Woodstock generation, and the Michigan studies. Casey “is reminding us about a poetic, philosophical view of the outdoors and how it’s inspired great art and literature. I talk about the almost spiritual connection baby boomers have with nature, one symbolized by Woodstock, and now we have the scientists entering and telling us how it’s important for restoration and cognitive function.”
Nature—it’s good for mind, body and soul. And on a beautiful summer’s morning, Americans might want to heed Whitman’s memorable call to action in his “Song of the Open Road.”
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology.