Spring, with its warmer air and blooming scenery, is the start of trail season for many hikers. And while feeling the sun on your face is one reason to go for a hike, there are others.
“In addition to being a good form of exercise, walking through nature comes with health benefits like lowering your blood pressure, improving sleep and reducing depression and anxiety,” says the Cleveland Clinic.
If you’ve been hibernating all winter, any amount of movement will result in physical improvements (although, as we’ll see, that isn’t the only reason to go hiking). But seeing benefits if you’re already in good shape will require hikes that are longer, more frequent or more intense (think more hill work).
Here are seven reasons hiking is good for both body and mind.
Hiking Is Good Exercise
Hiking’s most obvious benefit works on many different levels.
The National Park Service (NPS) calls hiking “a great whole-body workout—from head to toe and everything in between.”
One of hiking’s advantages is that it allows you to get in a good cardio workout without stressing your joints as much as jogging or running. And the fact that you’re generally moving over uneven ground allows you to increase your heart rate more than if you were walking on an even surface, such as on a track.
That extra effort also gives hiking the ability to help you build muscle.
“Hiking is great exercise for almost every major muscle group in the body,” says hardcore hiker Kristen Bor, who blogs at Bearfoot Theory. “Walking uphill engages the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves while hiking downhill engages the ankles, hips and core.”
Bor adds that hiking even helps work the muscles in the arms and back if you use trekking poles or carry a pack larger than a daypack.
Hiking Improves Balance
Having stronger muscles can help keep you steadier on your feet.
“As you walk along a trail, your leg and core muscles are constantly engaging and contracting to provide stability and balance over uneven terrain,” explains Bor. “As these core stabilizing muscles strengthen over time, balance improves.”
Bor adds that hiking “helps increaseproprioception, which is the mind’s awareness of the position and movement of the body in relation to its surroundings.”
That means the act of having to step over and around such obstacles as rocks and tree roots forces the brain to become “more adept at judging these obstacles,” which also improves balance.
Hiking Builds Bone Density
Walking in nature strengthens more than just your muscles—it helps build stronger bones as well.
Bone becomes less dense and more porous with age, increasing the risk of fracture. Researchers have long known that weight-bearing exercise builds bone in younger people. Now studies indicate that exercise promotes greater bone strength in older adults as well, especially when it involves resistance work (such as by wearing a backpack while hiking).
In addition, Cleveland Clinic says exercise “slows how quickly your body loses calcium, a vital component for strong bones.”
Hiking Boosts Circulatory and Brain Health
Exercise is known to help forestall chronic disease, and hiking is no exception.
“By working out, your circulation improves and your heart becomes stronger,” says Cleveland Clinic. Exercise also helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, key factors in cardiovascular health, while helping you fight obesity, itself a cardiac risk factor.
One big benefit? “Over time, your body adjusts to new fitness levels and you can hike longer, faster and harder without feeling as fatigued or out of breath,” says Bor.
Hiking’s benefits include promoting better memory and brain function.
“When you hike, blood flows to the brain, carrying with it oxygen and important nutrients,” explains Bor. “This increased blood flow improves connections between neurons in the parts of the brain that are in charge of memory and cognitive function.”
Hiking Reduces Stress While Aiding Sleep and Mental Well-Being
Feeling frazzled? Hiking can help.
“There’s a lot of research supporting the notion that connecting with nature improves mental health and well-being,” says Bor. “Whether we are taking in the spectacular glow of a sunset or gazing out at a field of wildflowers, these brief experiences of feeling ‘wowed’ by nature can make us feel happy and less stressed.”
The color green has a calming effect, which helps turn off your fight-or-flight stress response, while the exercise involved in hiking promotes the release ofendorphins, substances with pain-relieving properties.
Hiking also helps your head by letting you lose track of time.
“If you are giving all of your attention to keeping a good pace, you have little time to worry about what happened a week ago, or the big meeting you have coming up,” say the experts at the lifehack site Real Simple. “Being immersed in nature can instantly calm us as we tune in to what's around us.”
Given all these beneficial effects, it’s no wonder that a Stanford University study linked walking in nature to reduced markers for depression…and to less rumination on one’s troubles.
This ability to soothe and revive gives hiking the power to encourage better sleep, as does the extra exposure to sunlight—a key factor in your body’s ability to produce vitamin D and the hormone melatonin, both of which help control your wake-sleep cycle.
Hiking Lets You Unplug and Enjoy the Present
Modern life entails 24/7 connectivity via screens, which is a far cry from the nature-based world our ancestors experienced.
“Living life through our phones and social media can result in anxiety, not to mention being a huge time suck,” says Bor. “Turning off your phone and going for a hike is an opportunity to live in the present moment and disconnect from the pressures that we often feel when we are scrolling.”
What’s more, time spent among trees can increase your sense of well-being. The Japanese even have a term for it:shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing (learn more here). And the knowledge you gain as a hiker—whether it’s learning about the different types of trees or discovering which tracks are made by which animals—can also help you strengthen your bond with nature.
Hiking also fosters a sense of gratitude for simple pleasures, according to Real Simple.
“You know that feeling when you return from a super-sweaty workout and step into a hot shower? There's something special about cleansing when you really, really need it.”
Hiking Helps Build Relationships
Time spent with loved ones often becomes a flurry of chores and obligations. Going for a hike together can break that pattern, allowing you to forge a deeper sense of connection.
“You don’t have to go it alone next time you lace up your hiking boots,” says the NPS. “Hiking a trail together can bring you closer and help build a healthy relationship.”
And it’s not just personal relationships that can benefit. Bor says hiking can help build community, too: “Group activities provide social support and can offset feelings of doubt, worry or fear.”
Want to find hiking buddies? Bor suggests checking local Facebook groups orMeetUp.com.
Tips for Hiking
Going on a hike can be much more enjoyable if you prepare properly:
- If it’s been a while since you last exercised extensively, or if you have a pre-existing condition, talk to your healthcare practitioner
- Do some light stretching and warming up (leg swings, arm circles, etc.) before heading out
- Wear proper hiking boots and socks (learn morehere) with an eye towards keeping your feet as dry as possible
- Dress in layers; the top ones should be easy to remove and stow while you’re on the trail
- Be sure to stay hydrated, even in cold weather—don't wait until you’re thirsty to drink something; for hikes of at least several hours’ duration, bring snacks as well
- Stay safe: Research the terrain and weather patterns beforehand, bring at least one companion (and let someone else know where you’ll be), hike during daylight hours only and have an emergency plan in case you lose the trail or sudden storms arise
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