There is a lot more to hiking than just having some fun. It’s common knowledge that constant inactivity can lead to many health issues. It might be surprising, but there are many benefits of hiking, not all which are obvious and it can even reduce the risk of issues including cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, obesity and diabetes. Regardless of the physical and mental issues associated with inactivity, there is plenty of evidence which shows that being physically active can protect you against many chronic diseases and improves overall health.
From a walk on smooth surfaces to climbing mountains, hiking exists along a whole continuum. Hiking allows anyone to find their own personal challenge regardless of their athletic ability and other factors such as age. Hiking is usually associated with things like fresh mountain air, stunning views and landscapes, the smells and sounds of nature and snow crunching under your boots, but there are many other benefits too that we’ll cover in detail including:
- Lower anxiety and stress levels
- Improved mood, happier living
- Enhanced mental capabilities
- Improved cognition and creative thinking
- Better and happier relationships with family and friends
- Reduced risk of heart diseases and blood pressure
- Improves blood sugar levels
- Lowers cholesterol levels
- Longer life expectancy
- Helps fight diabetes
- A better immune system
- Helps reduce weight and maintain control over it
- Lowers body fat
- Makes bones more dense
- Strengthens muscles and joints
- Makes you more flexible and increases coordination
- Strengthens the core
The reasons why anyone should hike go well beyond the health-related rewards. However, both experienced hikers and people new to the trade should be aware of the health rewards of hiking (both physical and mental) to appreciate how good it can be for them, and that’s what this post is all about.
Hiking vs. Walking
Although hiking and walking might appear to be fairly similar on the surface due to similar body mechanics, in reality different things happen inside your body when hiking or walking. That’s the reason these are distinct activities that have a different impact on body parts, including the joints, muscles and most importantly the heart.
Walking on flat or smooth surfaces does not require a lot of effort, but walking in uneven terrain such as on hiking trails and/or with elevation gain increases your metabolism and heart rate. This makes hiking a dynamic workout that can burn calories much faster than walking. Similarly, you strengthen your muscles and joints when hiking because you are constantly shifting weight, walking extreme or awkward angles and balancing the body. It should not come as a surprise that most experienced hikers have strong calves, hamstrings, glutes and quads.
Moreover, although not without its own risks and challenges, hiking is not so taxing on your tendons and joints as many other workouts such as road running, which is hard on the knees and ankles. A majority of trails are softer than concrete or asphalt, which makes hiking a more sustainable method of staying physically fit with a very low risk of injury compared to some other sports.
How to Get Started with Setting Up Your Hiking Workouts?
We have already covered some of the best hikes around the world as well as thru-hikes in separate posts. You can also hike with a buddy or even a dog, but you need to consider some things before that as covered here in our hiking with dogs’ guide.
People new to hiking are recommended to start slow with short, local hikes and gradually work their way up to uneven terrains and trails with hills. You can also use poles in the beginning to dig into the ground and use your upper body muscles to push you forward. Evan a small hill intensifies the heart rate and burns more calories. 5-10 percent incline can result in 30-40 percent increase in calorie burn. Start adding some extra weight such as more water to strengthen the lower-back muscles as you progress.
If you cannot make it to a trail, try power-walking while carrying some weight in your backpack on a hilly terrain to maintain the fitness level. It’s better not to hike alone in the beginning, especially in remote or unfamiliar terrains. You can go solo as your skill and strength level improves. Another important thing is to leave prepared, familiarize yourself with the map, keep track of the weather and learn some essential hiking hacks.
Why Hiking is Good for Your Mental Health?
Aids in Growth of New Neurons
Your brain feels good when you are immersed in nature and scenic hiking can not only work out the body, but also exercises your mind. According to a recent study, hiking stimulates neurogenesis, which is a term that refers to the growth of new neurons. In addition to creation of new neurons, hiking also helps your creative juices flowing and nourishes the brain.
Helps Fight Anxiety and Depression
For the most part, you are away from technology, the social media and other distractive stuff when hiking, which gives your brain some break and gives it a chance to live in the moment. Hiking increases the level of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which helps alleviate anxiety and depression. We still don’t know how physical activity such as hiking does that, but we know that it can make a positive impact on the brain.
This ‘break’ helps build and increase creativity levels, attention span and creative reasoning. Life-style changes such as hiking can have notable ramifications for both mental and physical wellbeing. It also impacts cognition, especially higher-order function, including problem solving, selective attention, multi-tasking and inhibition.
The research linked above picked four hikers who immersed themselves in nature for four days after which, their creative problem solving performance increased by a whopping 50%. Although research is still going on in this area, it gives a fair idea of how hiking can positively influence our brains and its mental benefits.
There are a number of reasons why hiking is so good for our mental health including disconnection from attention-demanding technology and media and exposure to natural stimuli, which is low-arousing and emotionally positive. We still don’t know for sure if it’s the disconnect from technology or exposure to nature that results in better cognitive functioning, but either way it’s good for us in the end.
Your brain feels better when you are enjoying what is around you and not worrying about tight deadlines and other routine formalities. That’s why most hikers use their smartphones only when they really need to talk to someone or snap quick photos. These mental benefits last long after the hike and help replenish our executive attentional system.
Provides a Sense of Composure and Peace
Our bodies need adrenaline to cope with perceived or real dangers. If our brains do not release enough of it, it accumulates and leaves us feeling anxious and causes the muscles to get tense. Hiking helps our brains release adrenaline, which decreases anxiety and tension. That’s why we tend to feel better and more relaxed after walking or hiking in nature. Then there are Endorphins which are also released when hiking and make us feel lifted and happy.
Being outside in nature and spending time in green spaces, woodlands, nature preserves and even urban parks is a great way to relieve stress. Stress is known to be a contributor to heart related diseases and high blood pressure, so mitigating stress can help a lot in preventing such diseases. The sense of composure and peace you get from being closer to nature is real, which keeps anxiety and stress levels in check.
You don’t always have to hike solo. Hiking with your friends, family members or even a dog can make the experience more fun and help build strong relationships and bonds with fellow hikers. Hiking with people you know goes a long way as it strengthens relationships and enhances the overall quality of life.
Can Change How Our Brain Works
A study conducted by PNAS explains how hiking can change our brains for the better and how we think about the world around us. Hiking in nature helps put a stop to obsessive and negative thoughts by providing an instant feeling of contentment and calm. Being consumed by a lot of negative thoughts can hold us back from truly enjoying life and can lead to depression. Hiking can significantly reduce these negative thoughts, which consume us in urban environments.
The study concluded that compared to people who walked through an urban environment, people who walked in a natural environment had lower rumination levels and had a reduced activity in the area of their brains that is related to mental illnesses.
Taking time to move away from disruptive urban environments and spending more time with nature reduces mental fatigue, boosts creative thinking and soothes the mind. Hikers also tend to sleep well because they remove the new age stimuli caused by smartphones and computers, while it also has the potential of improving our memory and recollection.
Can Help Children with ADHD
Another study suggests that exposing kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to ‘green outdoor activities’ can significantly reduce the symptoms of the disorder. Kids with ADHD have a hard time controlling their impulse and stay focused. They can be distracted pretty easily and become hyperactive. Hiking is a natural solution that can help kids deal with the disorder, but you need to pick the trails/parks carefully and avoid difficult terrains.
Kids who start hiking (short and easy hikes) from a young age are less likely to become obese and develop issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The mental and physical benefits also apply to kids and can make them more alert in the class and sleep better at night.
Helps Maintain a Positive Relationship with Nature
Hiking long distances can reduce your carbon footprint, which benefits the only planet we know can support life. A stronger connection to nature makes us care more about its fate and strengthens our commitment to conservation efforts.
Makes You a Survivor
Hiking improves survival skills and trains you to survive with less. This is an important skill to learn in our everyday lives and enables us to adapt to different environments without feeling stressed out.
Why Hiking is Good for Your Physical Health?
As a Cardio Workout
On average, a mile of hiking (@4.5 miles per hour) burns around 500 calories. Hiking is considered to be one of the best cardio workouts, lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases and improves blood pressure. You also get the same benefits of most other cardio exercises, including decrease in cholesterol level and weight control.
Hundreds of thousands of people die each year because of heart related diseases, while billions are spent on medication and treatment. Physical activities such as hiking can significantly reduce the probability of having heart problems.
Hiking that involves some hills improves the overall as well as cardiovascular fitness by forcing the heart to work harder than usual. This also engages your core muscles and helps you improve balance skills. This level of body movement is usually not possible in other activities such as riding a bike or walking on a treadmill. People who have trouble with staying stable or have a poor vision can use trekking poles on uneven terrains for added security and support.
Helps Fight Obesity
Hiking is a great way of losing weight and stabilizing cholesterol levels. You burn around 500 calories every mile you hike at a steady pace (4. 5 miles per hour). Hikers can adjust the distance they travel if they cannot hike at that speed. People who lose weight by hiking are more likely to maintain weight loss and continue losing weight than people who lose weight only by dieting (they usually gain weight pretty quickly when they quit their dieting routine).
Helps Keep Hypertension Under Control
High blood pressure has become so common that 1/3rd of American adults now suffer from high blood pressure. Also known as the silent killer, the symptoms of hypertension are usually undetectable and can lead to a sudden stroke, heart attack or other serious cardio issues. Hiking can lower the BP by 4 to 10 points and help hikers regain their normal body weight, after which is possible to further decrease the level by 5 to 20 points.
Helps Reverse Course of Diabetes
Lack of physical activity and obesity has caused a surge in the number of people with diabetes. Hiking or even walking can reduce the quantity of insulin people who are suffering from insulin-dependent Type I diabetes need. On the other hand, non-insulin dependent Type II diabetics can reverse the course of their ailment by being physically active, losing weight and eating healthy.
Arthritis and Osteoporosis
Being a weight-bearing exercise, hiking strengthens bones and muscles. It can increase the bone density of people suffering from osteoporosis who walk for at least one hour every second day. Hiking also helps reverse the effects of arthritis and osteoporosis and reduces the susceptibility of bones to break.
As a Healer, Helps Fight Cancer
Oxidative stress is linked to the progression and recurrence of cancer and is also considered to be one of the causes of cancer onset. Scientists measured oxidative stress in men (prostate cancer) and women (breast cancer) in a study conducted by the National Institute of Health and discovered that long-distance hiking improves anti-oxidative levels in the blood.
Although hiking is not a cure for cancer, it can aid in its prevention and the healing process. Unlike high-intensity sports and workouts, hiking adapts to your own ability and improves the immune system. Trees and plants secrete phytoncides, which have a positive impact on our immune system, so you also improve your immune system when hiking.
More Workouts, Longer Life Expectancy
We already know people who remain active throughout their life and maintain a healthy lifestyle are more likely to live longer than inactive people. Around seven hours of physical activity each week has become like a benchmark for a healthy heart, but adults who engage in more physical activity have an even longer life expectancy. Regardless if you exercise one hour each day or workout more on some days, hiking often takes more time than that, so you are actually working out more and are likely to live longer if you keep hiking.
Helps Build Strength
Hiking as a regular exercise is a great way of burning fat, building strength and improving tone of the muscles. This increases the metabolism, the rate at which our bodies burn calories. Hiking enables you to burn more fat/calories in the long run and the results are longer-lasting compared to dieting and working out in a gym.
The thing with hiking is that you might not see the results immediately. You might be working hard, and building muscle, and shedding weight at the same time. Muscles are denser and weigh more than fat. So, building muscle means you won’t notice a lot of change in your overall weight, which is something people who want to hike to cut weight need to consider.
Fat burns more efficiency when you have fully built up muscles, even when you are sitting and not doing a lot of physical activity. Hiking to build muscle strength and cut weight is not a shortcut to losing weight and is more effective in the long run.
Helps Build Stamina
Hiking improves overall endurance and stamina and allows your body to adapt to different environments. For example, hiking above 4,000 ft. allows you to adapt to less oxygen and you’ll have more endurance the next time you hit the same trail.
Hiking as a Workout to Lose Weight
Trying to lose weight is one of the many reasons one might consider hiking. Hitting the trails improves stamina and cardio performance because it’s a real workout that also strengthens your joints, bones and muscles. Hikers have to work harder to hike through uneven terrains, which burns more calories and helps in losing weight.
Hitting the gym or changing diet to cut weight can be difficult, time consuming and hard to maintain. Hiking does not require you to have a fancy and expensive gym membership. You can hit the trails any time you want. Hiking is a great source of getting closer to nature, releasing mental tension and getting back in shape. You’ll certainly have a more enjoyable time hiking outdoors than being confined in a smelly, sweaty gym, but some body workouts can help you as well in being fitter for your hiking adventures.
Using a sports watch or fitness tracker such as the inexpensive Lintelek tracker is perhaps the easiest way of keeping a check on how many calories you burn when hiking. These watches have built-in sensors such as a heart-rate monitor that keep you updated about how much calories you have burnt. If you don’t want to invest in fancy tech, you can use simple online calorie calculators such as this.
First, you need to determine how many calories you need to maintain weight according to your physical activities and lifestyle. After that, you have to calculate the amount of calories you’ll burn when hiking. CaloriesBurnedHQ has a free specialized online calculator that allows you to calculate how many calories you’ll burn on different terrains by taking into account different factors such as backpack weight, duration, distance and difficulty.
Burning More Calories
You have to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight. Extra calories that our bodies store as protein turn into muscle, which our bodies rarely burn (unless pushed to its limits). Our bodies first burn carbs when we workout after which it starts burning fat. Weight loss is essentially a calorie deficit, allowing our body to burn the stored energy. Since hiking is generally considered as a low intensity workout, our bodies burn calories stored as fat for the most part.
This is what makes hiking such a great way to reduce weight because it helps burn fat effectively. Exercising with an empty stomach also burns calories stored as fat, but it’s tiring and difficult to maintain. On the other hand, high intensity workouts like an uphill sprint help burn more calories, but that energy can also come from muscles, which might not be the result most of us want.
Our bodies continue burning calories long after we are finished with a high intensity workout for things like muscle repair and replacing carbs. That’s why we need to strike the right balance between low and high intensity workouts. Hikers can start with a high intensity spurt to get their heart pumping with low intensity intervals in-between.
Our bodies don’t burn fat effectively when subjected to too much high intensity workout, which can cause muscle breakdown and fat retention. This is like the opposite of what most people trying to cut weight want. You want to cut weight by burning fat, but not too much muscle. Hiking is an activity that involves low intensity workouts for the most part with some high intensity spurts, making it a great way to cut weight.
Most hikes are not totally low intensity or high intensity workouts. Unlike a treadmill, the terrain keeps changing and requires extra effort every now and then. Add a backpack to the equation and you can burn calories even faster and turn a low intensity workout into something that requires a real effort. Here are a few things you can sprinkle in to turn low-intensity hikes into more calorie-burning workouts.
Uphill Running/ Slower Downhill
Instead of slowly moving up an incline, try running as fast as you can to the top for a few moments. This will get your heart pumping. Running uphill not only helps you burn more calories for a few minutes, but also increases the rate at which you keep burning calories for the rest of the hike.
Descending slower than usual makes the muscles that help our bodies slow down work harder than normal. By walking slowly on your way back, you are actually burning more fat and calories than going downhill fast.
Pushups, Squats and Lunges
You can take small breaks to do some pushups on the trail, which amps up the calorie burning process and turns a hike into a proper full-body workout. You can also incorporate squats and lunges to improve balance and condition your legs.
Increase the Weight of your Backpack
That’s the simplest thing you can do to intensify physical activity on the trail. The more you carry, the more energy you need to move, which means you burn more calories. Things you can carry to add weight include extra water and other things that you might need on a hike.
Use of trekking poles means it’s not just your legs that are doing all the hard work. Poles reduce the impact on leg muscles and knee joints and make your shoulders and arm muscles take more weight. Hiking poles increase the number of calories you burn without you feeling like that. However, this is not an optimal way of losing energy because our shoulders are not made to carry our weight for long periods of time.
In order to reap the full physical and mental benefits of hiking, you need to incorporate hiking into your regular schedule because occasional hiking is not good enough for long-term benefits. Variety is another important aspect to consider, which means you should hike on different terrains with different difficulty levels for more comprehensive workouts.
You need to be careful not to overdo it and push your body to its limits, which can not only harm your weight loss strategy and health goals, but can even result in injuries. Your body also needs some rest and time to recover and be efficient in burning calories. You need to strike the right balance between low and high intensity hiking, proper rest and adequate diet to achieve the desired results.
In addition to being a fun activity, hiking carries a lot of mental and physical health benefits and is good for everybody, no matter the age or fitness level. There is no shortage of research that clearly shows that extensive physical activities such as long-distance hiking improves the overall health, fitness level and quality of life. It reduces the risk of some serious ailments such as colon cancer, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes which are the most common causes of death in first world countries.
Hiking also helps us control weight, strengthen bones, muscles and joints. When it comes to mental health, it reduces depression and anxiety, which all ultimately lead to happier life and longer life expectancy.