I was recently reminded of a trip my wife and I last year took to Tasmania, where we spent five days trekking with a group along the Overland Track.
It lies within a World Heritage area in the state’s north-east and is one of the world’s greatest walks.
Why do I mention this, aside from for the pleasure of reminiscing?
Well, as I reflected, I recalled the island of serenity that it created among the busy-ness and stress of everyday life, and it occurred to me how good such things are not just for your health, but for your brain.
Now, it may not be possible for you to do the trek yourself (though I would highly recommend it if you can), but what can it teach us about the ingredients of good brain health?
To understand this, it is helpful to dissect the experience. In this way, even if you can’t fly over the Tasman, perhaps you can apply some of these things in day-to-day life. To paint a picture, we would spend about six hours a day walking the track, carrying just enough gear.
By just enough, I mean not so heavy that every step was agonising, but sufficient to make the walking strenuous.
We were intermittently out of breath, and this, along with the associated increase in pulse rate, helped suffuse our brains with blood, oxygen, and nutrients. So, physical exercise … tick.
The environment itself was also important for our wellbeing. Lake St Clair National Park, which the Overland Track bisects, is a true wilderness, beautiful and ever-changing.
The benefits of being in such natural environments are well documented.
Ecotherapy, as it is sometimes called, is known to improve your attention, mental flexibility and working memory.
Improvements in mental health – anxiety and depression – also often occur.
Then there is the concept of awe – a feeling of reverential respect.
This was a daily experience, surrounded as we were by vast plains and sheer mountains. Awe also confers brain benefits, including regulating our default mode network, a network that is stimulated when our minds are not purposefully cognitively engaged.
A disordered default mode network has been associated with depression, among other brain disorders.
At one stage throughout the trek, it was suggested we walk in silence through a section of forest, out of sight of other walkers. We were encouraged to pay attention to our senses – what we could see, and hear, and smell.
This was for me one of the most enjoyable sections – forced mindfulness if you will. Research has shown mindfulness and meditation have an unequivocal benefit for the brain.
As well as reducing stress and anxiety, it helps us maintain focus and manage our emotions.
Continuing the theme of sensory stimulus, one thing that was conspicuously absent was my phone. I had it with me, but the lack of reception rendered it obsolete.
I was blissfully free of the brain-distracting pings, notifications, and emails for almost the whole trip, and this no doubt helped my brain.
I say almost because I had my phone on to take photos from the highest point of the walk – Mt Ossa – and for a moment, the reception came back.
Within seconds, I received a deluge of texts and emails, and alongside it a flood of stress. I rapidly turned it off!
There were many other brain healing elements to the trip – good food, good company, clean air, even comfy beds to ensure a good night’s sleep.
When something feels good – or indeed bad – it is helpful to analyse why: in this way, you can make practical changes to your daily life to ensure your brain and body remain healthy.
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or