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Doctors Explain How Hiking Actually Changes Our Brains

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Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

While it may seem obvious that a good hike through a forest or up a mountain can cleanse your mind, body, and soul, science is now discovering that hiking can actually change your brain… for the better!

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Hiking in Nature Can Stop Negative, Obsessive Thoughts

Aside from the almost instant feeling of calm and contentment that accompanies time outdoors, hiking in nature can reduce rumination. Many of us often find ourselves consumed by negative thoughts, which takes us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. But a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.

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To conduct this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through either an urban or a natural environment. They found that those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and they also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. Those who walked through the urban environment, however, did not report decreased rumination.

The researchers noted that increased urbanization closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Taking the time to regularly remove ourselves from urban settings and spend more time in nature can greatly benefit our psychological (and physical) well-being.

Hiking While Disconnected From Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving

A study conducted by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by both disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. Participants in this study went backpacking through nature for about four days, during which time they were not allowed to use any technology whatsoever. They were asked to perform tasks requiring creative thinking and complex problem solving, and researchers found that performance on problem solving tasks improved by 50% for those who took part in this tech-free hiking excursion.

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They also noted that both technology and urban noise are incredibly disruptive, constantly demanding our attention and preventing us from focusing, all of which can be taxing to our cognitive functions. A nice long hike, sans technology, can reduce mental fatigue, soothe the mind, and boost creative thinking.

Hiking Outdoors Can Improve ADHD in Children

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is becoming more and more common among children. Children who have ADHD have a difficult time with impulse control and staying focused, get distracted easily, and exhibit excessive hyperactivity.

While raising children who have ADHD can be difficult for parents, the usual solution — opting for prescription medication — may be doing more harm than good, particularly when natural solutions can work just as well. A study conducted by Frances E Kup, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduces symptoms significantly. The results of this study suggest nature exposure can benefit anyone who has a difficult time paying attention and/or exhibits impulsive behaviour.

Hiking In Nature Is Great Exercise and Therefore Boosts Brainpower

We already know that exercise is fantastic for our overall well-being. Hiking is an excellent way to burn between 400–700 calories per hour, depending on your size and the hike difficulty, and it is easier on the joints than other activities like running. It has also been proven that people who exercise outside are more likely to keep at it and stick to their programs, making hiking an excellent choice for those wishing to become more active on a regular basis.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume — the part of the brain associated with spatial and episodic memory — in women over the age of 70. Such exercise not only reduces memory loss, but helps prevent it as well. Researchers also found that it can lower stress and anxiety, boost self esteem, and release endorphins. Many people take medication to solve each and every one of these issues, but the solution to these ills may be a lot simpler than you think!

How Can You Begin Hiking?

Luckily, hiking is one of the easiest and least expensive sports to get involved in, and it can have great benefits for the whole family, including grandma! Start out small and test your abilities. Do what works for you; if that means just walking through trails in a park, that’s fine. Any exercise outdoors is better than none. You can easily find maps of trails around your home online, and there are plenty of smartphone apps to map them out, too. I recommend turning off your signal and your phone while hiking though, so you can reap the most benefits of the hike (though it may be wise to at least carry it with you in case of emergency).

Make sure you have some good sturdy hiking shoes, a hat, and a water bottle, and be sure to layer your clothing so you can take things on or off easily as you warm up and cool down. You may want to consider using trekking poles as well, which can increase your speed and take some of the pressure off your knees. Now, can you just do one thing for me?

Go take a hike!

Much Love

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Brain Scans Reveal Structural Differences In People With “Smart Phone Addiction”

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    A new study recently published by German researchers from Heidelberg University show differences in brain structure between people with 'smart phone addition' compared to people without it.

  • Reflect On:

    Is your child constantly on their smartphone? Are they addicted?

Children entering into the world today are being birthed into a sea of technology that their parents never grew up with. As a result, we don’t really know the long-term consequences these technologies could have on these generations as they age. Preliminary research, however, is already showing significant cause for concern, and one of the latest examples comes from a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviours via German researchers.

The researchers examined 48 participants using MRI imaging, and 22 of the participants had smartphone addiction (SPA), and 26 of them were non-addicts. The main findings were that individuals with SPA  showed “significant lower” grey matter volume (GMA) in the insula and in certain regions of the temporal cortex compared to the individuals without smartphone addiction, known as the controls. Secondly, right anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activity was “significantly lower” in individuals with SPA compared to controls. Third, the researchers found associations between the smartphone addiction inventory  (SPAI) scores and GMV as well as  amplitude of low frequency fluctuations (ALFF), converged on the ACC.

The authors wrote that:

The present study provides first evidence for common neural underpinning mechanisms of behavioral addiction in individuals with SPA. This study clearly needs replication as much as extension in larger cohorts, including longitudinal assessments, ecological momentary assessment and task-based functional MRI. Yet, at the same time, this study provides important data and preliminary evidence, suggesting addiction-related differences in neural processes in the context of smartphone use, particularly with respect to the salience network. Given the widespread use and increasing popularity of smartphones, the present study challenges assumptions towards the harmlessness of smartphones, at least in individuals that may be at increased risk for developing addictive behaviors.

It should be concerning that there are actual structural changes in the brain that correlate with smartphone use in individuals who have an addiction compared to the brains of those who don’t.

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The study goes into what each brain region is associated with in regards to behaviour, intelligence, etc.

In China, for example, teenagers are becoming hooked on electronic screens. Whether it be with their phone, computer, or video games, many young people are spending countless hours in front of a screen without bothering to eat or sleep, sometimes even withholding their urge to use the bathroom.

According to a blog report published by the New York Times“many have come to view the real world as fake.” (source)

In China, this phenomenon is actually considered a clinical disorder, and as a result a number of rehabilitation centres have been established where young people addicted to screens are completely isolated from all media. Although the success of these treatment centres is still unknown, it paints a dark picture of the technological age in which we live, and does not seem to bode well for our future.

Studies in China show that people who spend more than 6 hours on the internet for something other than work or study are likely to become addicted. Below is a trailer for the documentary “Web Junkies,” shedding light on this troubling aspect of modern life:

It’s not just China, this type of thing is seen all around the world:

“While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of ‘live’ action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.” (source)

As we continue to move forward, this type of addiction and behaviour becomes more disturbing. The power that some multinational corporations have, alongside their clever marketing tactics – basically making whatever product or idea they choose to be desirable to the human mind – is worrisome.  A few years ago, the American Academy of Paediatrics found that the average 8-10 year old spends almost eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children/teenagers spend even more, up to 11 hours. (source)

A study conducted by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, which included over 20,000 children/teens between grades 3 and 12, concluded that approximately 20% of grade 3 students already owned a cell phone. The numbers steadily rose from that point forward to approximately 25% in grade 4, 39% in grade 5, and 83% in middle school. You can read that entire study HERE.

With all of these electronics, it’s important to be aware of the impact of the radiation they give out and their documented harms. To learn more about that and access the science now available, please visit the Environmental Health Trust. It’s a great place to start your research.

The Takeaway

We are in the beginning stages of what could potentially be a big problem. We have yet to see the smartphone generation reach adulthood, therefore we can’t fully measure the potential consequences, but again, numerous studies like this one have already shown great cause for concern and render the idea that smartphones are completely harmless as completely false.

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Awareness

Binge Watching Is Associated With a 12 Percent Increased Risk of Inflammatory-Related Death

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    An Australian study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at more than 8,900 adults and found that each additional hour of TV viewing was associated with a 12% increased risk of inflammatory-related death.

  • Reflect On:

    How much TV do you watch? How active is your lifestyle?

I’m sure that you hesitated before choosing to read this article, as most of us have been sucked into a binge watching marathon on more than one occasion (myself included). While it may seem like we’re buckling down to give ourselves a break, we may actually be hurting ourselves far more than we realize. Sitting for prolonged periods of time has proven to be harmful to our bodies, especially for adults over 50, and when you match lounging with television, you create a deadly combo.

In an Australian study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers examined more than 8,900 adults and found that each additional hour of TV viewing was associated with a 12% increased risk of inflammatory-related death, and those who spent more than four hours a day watching TV were at an even higher risk. This includes  diabetes, respiratory, cognitive, and kidney diseases. (source)

In general, watching television has proven to negatively impact mental health; it alters your brain, lowers your attention span, and has the potential to make you more aggressive. You don’t need to experience the “trance-like” state television can put us in, but I’m sure you’ve witnessed it before. This trance occurs roughly 30 seconds after you start watching TV. Your brain begins by producing alpha waves, leading to a light hypnotic state that makes the viewer less aware of their environment and more open to subtle messages — aka programming.

In the 1990s. Dr. Teresa Belton, a visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia, studied the effects that television has on the imagination of 10-12 year old children, ultimately concluding that television negatively impacts their development: “The ubiquity and ease of access to television and videos perhaps robs today’s children of the need to pursue their own thoughts and devise their own occupations, distracting them from inner processes and constantly demanding responses to external agendas, and suggests that this may have implications for the development of imaginative capacity.”

And these physical affects are becoming increasingly apparent. Not only does it eventually lead to immobility as you age, but with the risk of creating inflammation in the body, you are susceptible to a host of diseases including kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer’s, and even depression.

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Dr. Megan Grace is the lead investigator at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne. Between 1999 and 2000, her team quizzed adult participants about their viewing habits via a questionnaire. Again, this was before we had access to popular streaming websites like Netflix. The participants were separated into three groups based on their TV viewing habits: less than two hours per day, greater than two hours but less than four hours, and more than four hours.

“TV time was associated with increased risk of inflammatory-related mortality. This is consistent with the hypothesis that high TV viewing may be associated with a chronic inflammatory state,” the authors wrote.

They followed up with their participants 12 years later and found, of 909 deaths, 130 were inflammatory-related. Of the inflammatory-related deaths, 21 were from diseases of the respiratory system and 18 of the nervous system, and those who watched between two to four hours of TV a day showed a 54% higher risk of inflammatory-related death. Additionally, people who watched more than four hours of TV a day doubled their risk of dying from an inflammatory disease compared to those who watched two hours.

In addition to cutting down the amount of time you spend sitting in front of the TV and sitting or lying down, you can help combat inflammation with a number of foods like avocados, berries, sweet potato, onions, and watermelon, and herbs like, cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric.

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Some Doctors Claim Babies Should Share Their Mother’s Bed Until The Age Of 3

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    A study involving 16 infants monitored the babies while they slept in their mother's bed. It's not the only study examining the benefits of close contact between mother and child shortly after birth.

  • Reflect On:

    How much of what we do today in a conventional way, especially with regards to childbirth, is the best way to do it?

When it comes to parenting, everyone seems to have an opinion, and rightfully so, especially if you are yourself a parent. But what about controversial topics? Is there a right or wrong way to raise your children? Are there certain things that you should or should not be doing? Of course, some things are more important than others. But new advice given by a paediatrician suggests children should sleep in bed with their mothers until they reach the age of three. 

Dr. Nils Bergman, from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, argues that for optimal development, healthy newborns should sleep on their mother’s chest for at least their first few weeks. After that, he believes they should stay in bed with mom and dad until they are three or even four years old.

Because there has been a lot of fear propaganda created around the risk of cot death — the notion that a parent might roll over and suffocate their child — co-sleeping is generally not advised, and in fact, a recently published British study found that almost two-thirds of the cases of SIDS occurred when the bed was being shared.

But, according to Dr.Bergman, “When babies are smothered and suffer cot deaths, it is not because their mother is present. It is because of other things: toxic fumes, cigarettes, alcohol, big pillows and dangerous toys.”

A study involving 16 infants monitored the babies while they slept in their mother’s bed. It found that the baby’s heart was under three times as much stress when he or she slept alone. While sleeping in a cot, they had a more disrupted sleep and their brains were less likely to cycle and transition between the two types of sleep, called active and quiet.

In the cots, only 6 of the 16 babies had any quiet sleep at all, and their sleep quality was much worse.

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Dr. Bergman continued to explain how changes to the brain that are brought on by stress hormones can actually make it more difficult to form relationships and close bonds later in life.

Another study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry monitored results from 73 premature infants receiving Kangaroo Care, or skin-to-skin contact with their mothers, and another three premature infants received standard incubator care. The subjects of the study were monitored over a 10-year period, and the results were as follows:

KC increased autonomic functioning (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA) and maternal attachment behavior in the postpartum period, reduced maternal anxiety, and enhanced child cognitive development and executive functions from 6 months to 10 years. By 10 years of age, children receiving KC showed attenuated stress response, improved RSA, organized sleep, and better cognitive control. RSA and maternal behavior were dynamically interrelated over time, leading to improved physiology, executive functions, and mother–child reciprocity at 10 years.

The National Childbirth Trust supports bed sharing provided the parents have not been drinking, smoking, or using drugs, or if they are obese, chronically ill, or suffer from chronic exhaustion, all of which could cause them to roll over onto the baby or otherwise impact their health.

Overall, it’s a very controversial issue. Many swear by bed sharing, and it certainly used to be standard practice before cribs became so common and affordable. There are many upsides to this, but it is also important to be aware of and consider the potential dangers.

We all know babies need to be snuggled and cuddled and given love; they need to feel safe and secure, and how could they possibly feel this all alone in another room in a crib? When you actually think about it, it seems pretty backwards.

Every parent is just doing what they feel is best for their baby, but the opinions of others tend to get in the way. We’ve all heard those comments like, Oh you shouldn’t pick up that baby, you need to let them cry, they are going to have attachment issues, how are they going to develop their independence? Well, they are babies; they can’t care for themselves and they need to be taken care of. It is a natural urge for the mother to take care of her child.

What are your thoughts on this? Did you co-sleep with your child? Did you ever feel it was unsafe? Do you prefer your child to sleep in a crib? Let us know!

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