Hiking is arguably one of the most natural ways to exercise. It’s ingrained in our hunter gatherer DNA. According to evolutionary biology, the average hunter gatherer was believed to have walked more than six miles per day. Unlike the smooth concrete surfaces of sidewalks in the 21st century, hunter gatherers would have navigated through different terrains: rocky, rugged dirt paths and different inclines. This is essentially modern-day hiking.
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So it’s safe to say we’re designed to hike, and it does us good. There are a number of amazing benefits associated with hiking that go beyond the cardiovascular benefits that are most evident. We believe – and science supports – that hiking has many benefits for your mental and emotional health and social wellbeing. This makes it one of the best ways to spend your time.
Here are the benefits of hiking:
Physical benefits of hiking
We all know that exercise is good for us. But different types of exercise have unique benefits; for example marathon running and powerlifting do not have identical physical outcomes, albeit many of the same Similarly, hiking offers some specific advantages when compared to other forms of exercise. Which are...
- Improves cardiovascular health
Your cardiovascular system consists of the heart, blood and blood vessels, arteries, capillaries and veins. This circulatory system is responsible for keeping us alive, sending oxygen and nutrients throughout the body via the network of arteries, veins and capillaries. How well this system works is one of the key markers of general health.
Hiking is considered a cardiovascular activity, defined by Livestrong as any exercise that “increases heart rate and respiration while using large muscle groups repetitivity”. Cardio exercise is extremely important to do regularly to maintain heart health, recommended at 30 minutes a day by the CDC.
Cardio, like hiking, improves blood flow and circulation, allowing blood vessels to transport oxygen to reach everywhere in the body, lowering the risk of clots and heart attacks. When performed regularly, cardio activities have been shown in research to lower blood pressure, regulate blood glucose levels and improve cholesterol levels.
- Promotes weight regulation
Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for. When we eat healthy and exercise regularly, our bodies regulate our weight to keep it at a healthy threshold known as energy balance. When we burn more energy than we consume, by eating less and moving more, our bodies efficiently burn stored energy (fat) and we lose weight.
Hiking as a form of exercise, burns energy and can promote healthy weight regulation. Per hour of hiking, someone who weighs between 160 to 200 lbs will burn up to 550 calories depending on the incline; the higher the incline the more calories burnt. When walking uphill at a 5 percent grade, you burn an extra five calories per minute compared to walking on flat land.
If you want to lose weight, hiking can help.
- Builds muscle and bone density
Unlike some other cardiovascular activities like running, hiking builds muscle and bone density, due to the component of incline. According to Trailism, most hikes have a grade (incline) of 5 to 35 percent. Walking uphill is different to walking on flat land, due to gravity. This activates the muscles in your lower body, specifically the quads, glutes and calves. When walking downhill, your abdominal muscles are recruited to stabilize the climb; making it an ideal exercise for lean muscle building and strengthening.
As we age, we lose bone density in a condition known as osteopenia. Weight-bearing activities strengthen bone tissue and improve bone density, by forcing your bones to adapt to work against the resistance. In the case of hiking, the resistance is your body working against gravity.
Mental and emotional benefits of hiking
- Stress relief
According to The American Institute of Stress, 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress. Stress is a major risk factor for disease and mental health disorders, from stroke and hypertension to depression; it’s essential that stress is managed effectively.
Studies have shown that hiking in nature lowers cortisol (the stress hormone), signaling its efficacy as a stress reliever. A 2018 study found that in a group of participants, those who walked for 10 minutes reported an improved mood and mental state compared to those who were sedentary.
Another study examined the role of nature in hiking for stress relief. The researchers asked a group of participants to walk in nature for 20 minutes and then monitored their levels of stress hormones. They reported significantly improved outcomes on stress levels.
- Boosts brain function
When you increase your heart rate, you increase blood flow to the brain. More oxygen and nutrients to the brain means boosted cognitive functions, like reaction time, memory, emotional processing and more. This is partly why exercise is used as a treatment for mild cognitive impairment.
Aside from this, hiking also improves brain function by exercising the hippocampus - the region of the brain associated with geo-navigation and memory. When you are navigating difficult terrains and memorizing your path, your brain is getting a workout just as much as your body is.
- Social connectedness
One of the golden rules of hiking is to avoid doing it alone. This is because it can be dangerous, particularly on remote trails or in harsh climates. This is an advantage by encouraging hikers to engage with others socially. If you’ve been feeling lonely during the pandemic, meeting up with a friend, family member or colleague to go for a hike will help you feel socially connected and fulfilled.
If you don’t have anyone to hike with, there are plenty of online forums to connect with other hikers in your area. It will guarantee your safety and allow for some socializing; making any hike even more enjoyable.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of hiking. Hiking is one of the best ways to add exercise into your life, providing an opportunity for mental, emotional, physical and social growth. Subscribe to the FitMyFoot blog for more tips on hiking.