Health Benefits of Hiking
How Much Impact Does Hiking Have on Your Body?
Long before “forest bathing,” prescriptions for Vitamin N, and our obsession with self-care, outdoorsy folks around the world have known that the healthiest way to combat anxiety is to get outside and go for a walk. But beyond the mental benefits of hiking, there are also clear physical rewards earned so much more pleasantly than a 30-minute stint on a treadmill.
5 Physical Benefits of Hiking
The benefits of a hiking workout are many, but here are five of the most important health benefits of hiking.
Lower Risk of Heart Disease & Hypertension
One of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and hypertension is physical activity. Because hiking is a low-impact sport, you reap the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise while putting less stress on your body than if you were running or jumping. This lower risk of injury—along with the accessibility of hiking for people of many ages and ability levels—makes it the perfect activity for people looking to improve their cardiovascular health.
Improved Blood Sugar Levels
Exercise increases insulin sensitivity and helps your muscles use more glucose (blood sugar), which lowers your blood sugar levels over time. Hiking can reduce the amount of insulin a person with type 1 diabetes needs. It can also help reverse the course of type 2 diabetes, when paired with dietary changes and weight loss.
Better Bone Density
Hiking is a weight-bearing activity, which means it increases bone density. Hiking helps fight the negative effects of osteoporosis by increasing bone density and slowing the rate of calcium loss, which strengthens bones and makes them less likely to break.
Potential Weight Loss
Hiking is an aerobic exercise that takes place on an uneven surface. This causes your metabolic and heart rates to increase, which burns more calories than walking on flat, paved terrain. In fact, a study at the University of Michigan found that hiking on uneven surfaces increases the amount of energy your body uses by nearly 30%. Hiking requires your muscles to work together differently than on flat surfaces, which increases the amount of energy you use, and the amount of calories you burn.
Unstable hiking surfaces engage your core, as well as your leg muscles. Keep in mind, there’s more to your core than six-pack abs. Your pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis, obliques, hip muscles, and lower back all make up your core and work to stabilize your entire body. A strong, balanced core not only looks healthy, it also prevents organ prolapse, incontinence, and poor posture.
Mental Health Benefits of Hiking
Hiking benefits your mind by boosting your mood while combating stress and anxiety. Your body produces adrenaline to cope with danger, either real or perceived. Unused adrenaline in the body leads to anxiety and muscle tension. Hiking helps your body release built-up adrenaline. Hiking also releases endorphins, which reduce your perception of pain and stimulate positive feelings.
Urbanization—the movement of people toward urban areas—can also have a negative impact on mental health, according to many studies. But whether you live in a city or a mountain town, if you can find a way to incorporate hiking into your life, you can reap the mental rewards of being in nature. Studies also show that spending time outdoors reduces negative patterns of thought associated with anxiety and depression.
How to Kickstart a Hiking Fitness Routine
The great thing about hiking is that it doesn’t require any special equipment to get started. If you’ve got a pair of sneakers and a small backpack, you can enjoy the benefits of hiking by stepping out your door with what you already own. As you progress, you may seek out more challenging terrain, higher altitudes, and longer distances. Here are a few things to keep in mind when your gym shoes, reusable water bottle, and cotton t-shirt no longer cut it.
Staying hydrated is the key to success for any physical activity. This begins before you even set foot outside. Stay hydrated in the hours leading up to your hike to ensure optimal performance. While on trail, you will need a way to carry liquids. Many lightweight, breathable backpacks, vests, and belts exist. Or you may opt to hold an insulated bottle in one hand. Either way, stick to water or a sports drink that contains electrolytes, potassium, and salts, but not a lot of sugar.
Know Your Terrain
Hiking on natural surfaces always includes a level of instability, which makes supportive footwear a smart, safe choice. That may simply mean trail runners designed for stability, or supportive boots that protect your ankles. Keep in mind how the weather and season may alter the trail. Your footwear should be appropriate for the terrain and the current conditions, from snow and sand to mud. Wet conditions mean hiking sandals or waterproof boots. Icy trail conditions may require crampons or microspikes.
In addition to proper footwear, trekking poles can help you establish a rhythm as you hike, assist your balance, and lessen the impact on your knees as you travel downhill.
Prepare for Weather
Temperature and weather conditions can change quickly while hiking, making it important to bring layers. Moisture-wicking base layers and breathable fabrics keep you comfortable in sweaty and damp conditions. Check the forecast and consider bringing a windproof, water-resistant, or waterproof jacket. Finally, don’t forget sun protection and remember that the need for sunscreen and sunglasses increases with the elevation.
Follow Hiking Etiquette
Familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace Seven Principles before you hit the trail. Like with any recreational activity, certain things are understood and expected by the hiking community. For example, hikers traveling downhill should always yield to those ascending the trail. The American Hiking Society has a comprehensive list of hiking etiquette guidelines you should review before setting out.
Regardless of which trail you choose, get out there and enjoy all the benefits hiking has to offer your body and mind.
Motherhood keeps Sarah Boles grounded, but the wilderness keeps her sane. She holds degrees in news editorial-photojournalism and Spanish from TCU and served as the sports editor for a weekly newspaper before continuing her education in order to teach and coach middle schoolers. Sarah rediscovered her passions for the outdoors and storytelling after becoming a mom, leading her to the role of editorial manager for the nonprofit, Adventure Mamas Initiative.