Researchers in Austria put this question to the test.
A hike in the mountains boosts one's spirits like nothing else. You can head out on a trail feeling stressed about the number of emails waiting in your inbox or a tough conversation you need to have with an employee, and with every step those worries drop away. You relax, breathe, focus on the spectacular scenery around you, and nothing seems so pressing anymore.
A group of researchers wanted to find out if this improvement in wellbeing comes just from being outside or if it's linked to being in the wilderness, away from signs of civilization. So they concocted a study, just published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, in which 52 participants spent three days in the Austrian mountains. Without knowing the reason for the study, the participants went on two almost identical hikes – both 7 km (4.3 mi) in length, lasting three hours in total, taking place at the same time of day, with 750 meters (2460 ft) of altitude change.The only difference? One hike took place within sight of 'anthropogenic elements,' manmade structures including a highway, cars, ski lift, snow cannon, construction site on a path that followed gravel and forest roads. The other hike happened in the wilderness, with no anthropogenic elements in sight. "The path quality was predominantly small paths and pathless terrain. The turning point, as well as the main part of the tour was without any buildings in sight."
The researchers measured the participants' cortisol levels (a hormone that is released in response to stress) by taking saliva samples at various points throughout the day. Questionnaires were used to assess participants' mental states following each of the hikes, i.e. feelings of elation, anxiety, contemplation, depression.
What they found is that there's no measurable difference between hiking in a wilderness setting and a more built-up setting. From the study's discussion, "The results suggest comparable changes of both affective states and salivary cortisol level when hiking in environments with less and more anthropogenic elements."
Curiously, however, the hikers' perception of their own affective state differed based on the surroundings. When asked to rate how they thought the hike affected their mood on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most positive), the wilderness hike got an 8.5, while the more built-up trail got a 6.3.
The researchers had expected more of a difference between the two experiences, especially considering how much indoor and outdoor exercise differ from each other, i.e. walking on a treadmill as opposed to outside. But clearly the physical factors are minimal.
One possible influence on the results could be that these particular signs of human presence are not typically perceived as negative; for example, some hikers might like seeing ski lifts and snow cannons and have positive associations with downhill skiing in winter. If the hike had passed by scenes of man-made environmental devastation, perhaps the results would be different.
Nevertheless, this should come as good news to urban dwellers who find it difficult to get away from signs of human presence. Now we know it doesn't actually matter. What's more important is getting out there and getting the exercise.