We all know that regular exercise is important to our health, and has the ability to lengthen and improve our lives… and we all know that hiking is a form of exercise! However, you may not be aware of just how large a wealth of benefits hiking has to offer.
First off, hiking is a great form of cardiovascular exercise, and is excellent for weight control. When I hike, my heart rate remains elevated in the fat burning zone pretty much the entire time (as opposed to running, where my heart rate will reach cardio and peak levels). Hiking also burns some serious calories. In fact, hiking uphill can burn a similar amount of calories as going for a jog. For me, a ten mile (mostly flat) hike was able to burn the same amount of calories as running a half marathon. Running is able to burn calories faster, but hiking tends to be much easier on your joints.
In addition to helping with weight loss and control, hiking offers a wide variety of other benefits! Hiking is a form of aerobic exercise, and engaging in this form of activity on a regular basis improves both your cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness, as well as lowers your risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, certain cancers, and type II diabetes. Since walking is a weight-bearing exercise, hiking also counts as a bone strengthening activity (ie. the force put on your bones during hiking helps promote bone growth and strength). This can help greatly with the effects of osteoporosis and arthritis. Research shows that engaging in an aerobic activity such as hiking for 2.5 hours each week is enough to reap most of these benefits, but the longer the better!
If you have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night, hiking can help you there too! Exercise helps you fall asleep faster and also improves your quality of sleep by compensating for physical stress by increasing the amount of time you stay in deep sleep. As someone who has often had trouble with falling asleep and restless nights, I have absolutely no trouble dropping off into a deep sleep within minutes of closing my eyes after a long day of hiking. I have also had some of the best sleep of my life during periods where I’m training for races.
Image from the David Suzuki Foundation
Hiking is a total body workout, with the ability to exercise almost every muscle in your body. Obviously, most of the work is concentrated in the muscle groups of your lower body, but hiking also helps to strengthen your core, and through the use of trekking poles and/or a pack, your upper body can get a good workout in too!
So now we know that hiking is beneficial for almost every aspect of your physical health. But the benefits don’t stop there! Hiking also has a wide array of benefits for the brain and your mental health. Going for a hike is an excellent mood booster. You probably know that exercise releases endorphins, which are known as the body’s “feel good” chemicals. While endorphins can be produced during most types of exercise, hiking has a leg up on some of the others due to the fact that it occurs out in the beauty of nature. There are numerous studies that show the mental and physical benefits of spending time outdoors. Communing with nature can help combat symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, and has also been known to boost creativity and problem-solving skills. Spending time in nature also tends to bring about a general sense of peace and well-being. While I’m hiking, I often find myself with a huge smile on my face for no apparent reason! Physically, hanging around outdoors can also strengthen your immune system. The power of exercising in nature is truly awesome.
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or forest therapy was founded based on the many health benefits of spending time in nature.
Regular hiking seriously provides the best of both worlds: the benefits of regular exercise AND spending time in nature. It’s fun and easy to fit 2-3 hours of hiking into your weekly schedule, and you definitely won’t regret it. Since I began engaging in regular outdoor exercise 3 years ago, I have noticed a marked difference in both my physical and mental health. Start hiking today!
Not enough time to read the full article before heading out on your next hike? Let’s summarize:
Physical Benefits: weight loss/control, improved cardio-respiratory fitness, improved muscular fitness, improved quality of sleep, stronger immune system
Mental Benefits: reduced symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, increased creativity and problem-solving skills, general sense of peace & well-being
Reduced risk of: heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, certain cancers