Updated: Sep 21, 2020
August 25, 2020
I hit the trail for many reasons; the health benefits are just an added bonus. I hike for my love of wilderness and the outdoors. I hike because I want to walk single-file dirt paths, cross cold mountain streams and listen to the water cascading down rocks, and climb mountainsides to get a glimpse of the forest from above.
I hike to explore new areas. Some of the most exciting moments of my hikes are unplanned ones, such as running across an unexpected waterfall, watching an animal in its natural habitat (from a distance), or discovering cool rocks, fossils, or tree formations.
Though not my primary motivation, hiking is great for your health as well. As it turns out, hiking as a form of exercise has a lot more to offer than indoor exercise routines. So how does hiking affect your overall health?
Health Benefits of Hiking
1. Hiking for Physical Exercise
Of course, hiking is a good source of physical exercise, no matter what your skill level. In fact, hikers may actually burn more calories on an average hike than walkers or runners, one study claims, because they spend more time outdoors enjoying the environment.
2. Hiking to Remain Active
This point may seem similar to #1, but I want to emphasize the health benefits of simply staying active in a culture where more and more people lead sedentary lives. In fact, “an estimated 5.3 million premature deaths per year worldwide are attributed to physically inactive lifestyles.” Hiking is one way to remain active, and maintaining a regular hiking routine can help improve muscular fitness and cardiovascular health. If you’re unsure how much activity you should get, see the Health and Human Services’ guidelines for physical activity in America.
3. Hiking to Reduce Stress and Depression
Numerous studies show a connection between time outdoors and stress reduction. One such study shows that just “15 minutes in the woods has been shown to reduce test subjects’ levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.” Since stress can contribute to high blood pressure and an increased risk for heart disease, reducing daily stress is important. Even short hikes can help ease stress levels, as well as help decrease anxiety and other forms of emotional depression.
4. Hiking to Boost Your Immune System
Hiking has been shown to boost the immune system because hikers are able to reap the natural benefits of green spaces. In addition to the obvious benefits of access to fresh air and vitamin D through sun exposure, several studies concluded that hiking can actually boost white blood cell counts. Once such study showed that “After hiking twice a day for three days, participants' white blood cells had increased by 40%.”
5. Hiking to Avoid Nature-Deficit Disorder
Nature-Deficit Disorder isn’t actually a medical condition, but a popularized term that describes behavioral changes in children due to limited time outdoors. Not only can hiking curb nature-deficit disorder in children, several studies agree that spending time playing in natural environments can actually boost motor skills such as coordination and agility.
6. Hiking for Mindfulness
For those of us avid hikers, this point is self-explanatory. I know every time I spend several hours hiking in the outdoors, I just feel recharged psychologically. One study actually concluded that “people with greater connectivity to nature have been shown to demonstrate greater trait mindfulness.” Hiking is only one way to achieve a greater connectivity to nature, but with all the other health benefits, why not hike?
Hike at Your Own Pace
Often when we think of hiking, the movies about thru-hiking the PCT or summiting some of the world’s highest peaks come to mind. But hiking doesn’t have to be that ambitious or reserved for only the most fit, able-bodied people. After all, that’s part of what this blog is about.
It’s important to be realistic when hiking. Remember, the athletes that summit 14ers or partake in long-distance hiking train for those activities. Long hikes with lots of elevation gain take time to work up to. In some cases, those kinds of hikes may not be realistic for some people, especially those with disabilities.
If you’re new to hiking, make sure you choose trails suited to your abilities and skill level. Work up to hikes with inclines. If you’re utilizing apps like All Trails to find hiking trails in your area, read the trail descriptions and hiker reviews before attempting a trail you haven’t previously hiked. And, as always, be sure to hike safely, bring enough water and snacks, pay attention to your surroundings, and always pack out what you pack in!