Hiking Benefits - Scientific Reasons to Hit the Trails Today!
Hiking through beautiful landscapes is a reward in itself. But as if this was not enough there is a whole range of hiking benefits to serve our body, mind, and social relations.
No matter the length or difficulty – all hikes bring benefits to the physical and mental health. Do what works for you – and hike your own hike. It can be 30 min before or after work, or a few weeks in the wilderness.
The benefits might vary – but they are all the lovely side effects of simply enjoying some time with Nature.
Please remember, we are all different and we all have specific body needs.
If you have any health issues check with your doctor first before starting any kind of physical activity, and especially if you wish to do something more strenuous, like long hikes in mountainous terrain.
Let's stay safe, enjoy the Great Outdoors and reap the many benefits of hiking :)
Hiking benefits to your body's health and performance
- Hiking is a type of cardiovascular exercise. The American Heart Association advises either to exercise for 150 min/week on a moderate level or 75 min on a more vigorous level.
A lovely short hike once a week will already fulfill those recommendations. Go uphill or grab a heavier backpack for a more demanding cardio workout. The bigger incline the more blood pumping you get.
Improving cardiovascular fitness decreases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease, and type II diabetes. I personally don't like the typical gym cardio exercises.
I can't imagine running on a treadmill for 15 min at a time... but walking in Nature? I can do it for hours and never get bored!
- Hiking is a great muscular workout for the whole body. With each, step all your lower body's biggest muscles work, and if you use trekking poles and/or carry a heavier backpack you additionally force more muscles to engage.
Hiking on an incline causes your muscles to fire up and get stronger. Your whole core is engaged like crazy – especially when you go downhill on a steep slope with a backpack. It’s not just the legs!
Hiking is a mixture of cardio with weight training benefiting every muscle in your body.
- Hiking tones your whole body. To a stranger, I might not look particularly fit – I have some nice padding in all the right places.
But if you touched (but please don’t) – my quads are hard like a rock, my abs are of steel, even if you can’t see them. I have clearly defined biceps and triceps and you could learn anatomy on my forearm (thank you, trekking poles!).
Oh, and don’t even let me start about the way my backside looks… ;-)
- Hiking is the perfect endurance training. Long-distance hiking means going for a long time and forcing the body to work for hours at a time.
Gradually, week after week, you are getting stronger. I am asthmatic but I realized that thanks to hiking I can go longer and harder with no hard breathing or whizzing.
- Hiking provides challenging natural movements that no gym would give you. In additional to the regular muscle work, hiking provides challenges that no gym exercise will. Hiking on an uneven surface, crossing streams, jumping or climbing forces your body to use the stabilizing muscles a lot and provides an even workout for the whole body, and not pinpointed target exercises.
When you hike you do lunges, squats, and jumps - but you are typically unbalanced with a heavy pack which forces your body to implement all sources it has to keep you moving and to prevent falling.
- Hiking brings better sleep. It’s not just about being simply tired after a long hike – something about Nature makes us sleep better. I have difficulties with falling asleep because of my anxiety – my brain just can’t calm down and relax, forcing me to take medicine to just slow it down a bit.
But when I’m hiking for a few days in the mountains, I sleep like a baby. Often for more than 10h ;-). It is proven that hiking calms down an anxious mind and helps with obsessive thinking and ruminating.
Good, long sleep is absolutely essential for both physical and mental health.
- Hiking helps with weight control. Hiking is a great calorie burning activity (350 – 500 calories/h). How much you burn depends of course on the type of your body, the type of trail you hike and the weight of your backpack. 5% - 10% incline causes your body to burn 30%-40% more calories.
Carrying 5kg – 7kg on your back will require another 10% - 15% spike in calorie burn. Going for a longer hike can burn hundreds of them! It is important to remember to even out your spending by proper nutrition, but when you hike for days in a harsh terrain with a backpack, it’s almost impossible to do it. I always lose some weight when I go on hiking trips, even though I try to eat a lot.
But when hiking 20+ km/day with a heavy backpack… that’s at least extra 2000 calories burnt in addition to the regular body needs. How could I ever eat 4000 calories/day to equal the spending?
If you struggle with keeping your body fat on a healthy level, hiking can help you with that with no harsh or dangerous diets.
- Hiking increases bone density and lowers the risk of its loss.Walking, in general, is the perfect exercise to help with bone health. As it is gentler on your joints (compared to running) it can be done even by people already struggling with osteoporosis or other health issues.
- Hiking is the type of exercise that can be done at every fitness level. No matter if you lead a sedentary life and are completely out of shape, you can reap the many benefits of hiking.
You can start slowly and gradually increase the distance or difficulty.
Start with walking in your city park, short weekend trips, then add harsher terrain or heavier packs. If you have joint issues - use trekking poles to relieve some of the impacts. Walking is the easiest exercise of them all - no need to learn anything special, you already know how to do it!
You don't have to hike in the Himalayas to get the health benefits - doctors and scientists agree that even 10 min. of walking already brings positive change for your body. It might seem less "serious" than, let's say, running, but it brings as many benefits with fewer risks of injury.
I can hardly run for longer than a few minutes, but I can walk for miles upon miles! Just start walking - and see the great health benefits!
- Hiking takes you outside and increases your body's levels of vit. D. Research shows that our societies are generally vit. D deprived. We spend too much time indoors, with very little time out in the sunshine.
We have to take care of our skin to prevent skin cancer, but we also need some of the sunlight! Just 30 min outside is enough for our body to produce enough vit. D to keep its healthy levels.
It's difficult to write all the amazing benefits of vit.D - so let's just make sure we get some daylight now and then.
- Hiking reduces risks of various cancers. Research also shows that regular walking and hiking reduces risks of cancer, in particular, colon cancer – by 30% in women.
- Hiking gradually makes your body stronger and less prone to daily injuries. Strengthening core muscles and stabilizers help prevent injuries during the daily life. Stronger back muscles (thanks to carrying a backpack, using trekking poles and downhill walks) force us to keep better posture and prevent the common backaches.
Hiking improves our balance makes us stronger, more flexible and fit which results in fewer falls and injuries in daily life.
Hiking benefits to your mental health
- Hiking is a great stress relief. It's not an accident that we say we need to "walk it off" when if we angry or frustrated. All physical activity helps, but when we do it in Nature there are additional beneficial factors at play.
Trees produce essential oils (phytocides) which have a calming effect on our minds. When we hike or run in the forest we breathe extra hard, letting all those particles work their magic in our brains.
The Japanese have even a special term for it, called "forest bathing". Just sitting among trees beneficial to our mental health, but when combined with gentle exercise, the benefits multiple.
- Hiking causes our bodies to produce endorphins. This is, of course, true with every exercise. Endorphins help raise positive mood, decrease stress, tension, anger, and anxiety. Hiking simply makes us happier.
- Hiking takes out of all the concrete and into natural beauty. We were born to enjoy the great outdoors, to roam the wild paths and be surrounded by greenery and birds singing.
We might try to replicate it in our cities by images or lovely design but it's just an ersatz to the real thing. It's also a chance to unplug and move our eyes away from the screens and onto gorgeous natural vistas.
All this natural beauty have a positive impact on us. Some of us try to capture it all in a photograph, others write journals or poems. Some come up with great ideas and plans while walking.
Hiking calms our mind so it can just move in multiple directions finding new ideas and solutions. Some research found that it increases creative reasoning by 50%.
- Hiking stimulates our brains causing it to think in new ways. It isn't much you can learn while running the treadmill. But hiking in woods?
It’s educational – the brain is calmer but it doesn’t stop. It has to work in new ways, learn new paths and find solutions. There are new challenges, new views, new plants.
I love reading every kind of educational board I find on my way – be it historical info on the area or descriptions of plants and animals I can find on my way.
As I pointed above - hiking increases creative reasoning and is the perfect workout for our brains.
- Hiking brings relief and possibly prevents many mental ailments. According to research, people who don’t have daily contact with Nature – like all of us living in cities – have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental issues than those who live in the country.
Scientists found that people who walk among trees ruminate less, which might prevent depression. I know that for me hiking is an amazing tool to stop obsessive thinking and ruminating.
As I suffer from social anxiety, hiking among trees in solitude is a wonderful tool to find some peace of mind and a temporary relief.
But it's not just my personal feeling - science proves that hiking relieves anxiety.
- Hiking might improve memory and prevent Alzheimer's disease. Some research suggests that hiking in Nature improves memory (by increasing hippocampal volume) and might prevent Alzheimer’s disease or slower the appearance dementia.
- Hiking boosts your confidence and helps to create a healthier self-image. The feeling of accomplishment, the pure joy of reaching a summit or trail’s end and thinking, “I did it!” is just such a boost to your self-confidence.
I feel like a bad ass after crossing a stream or climbing a particularly steep climb. I don’t compare myself to others, I don’t’ care that others do Himalayas while I do hills – I know I did something great and it’s just wonderful.
We all know that basing our body image on what it can accomplish instead of its size or look is a much healthier approach. I look at my thick thighs as hiking machines able to bring me up a high mountain with a heavy backpack on.
I realized that I often pose for my mountain selfies standing erect and with hands on my hips. That's a power stand! Because that's how I feel when I do it - not pretty, not slim or something, I feel powerful and strong.
I don't care that I have messy hair or sweaty back on those photos - I see my achievements and my badassery only. I've struggled with self-confidence and body image for too many years. But I love my body now, what it can accomplish and through it - the way it looks.
- Hiking increases mindfulness. I’ve read tons on the benefits of meditation but I just can’t do it. I tried multiple times but it just doesn’t work for me. But hiking? Yes, that works.
Not right away but after a while, I get into a rhythm and my mind calms down. I stop thinking about problems, work or other stressful things. I am more in the moment, enjoying views and reacting to whatever is going on. Hiking is my form of meditation.
Hiking benefits to your social health
- Hiking lets me be a part of a wonderful community. As an introvert and a social anxiety sufferer, I have a hard time building relations. But as most human beings, I do need them.
I need to feel I belong, that I bring something to the society, that I am accepted. I might be a solo hiker, but that doesn't mean that I don't' feel being part of the hiking community.
Interacting on social media, reading articles or talking with other hikers met on the trail or at a camping site - all of it is important to me. The feeling of sisterhood, the inner jokes or common struggles, brings us together. I found that I deal with people better when I had enough time by myself hiking.
I can chat for hours in the evening after a long solo hike. I am not "people tired" and I actually enjoy the chat. I can also not talk to anyone for days and not feel lonely - but that's just my nature.
- Hiking lets you build stronger bonds with your friends and family. If you don’t like hiking alone, it can be a wonderful time with friends and family. It creates stronger bonds and gives the opportunity to get to know each other better.
In our times, even if we live with each other, we don't interact with each other on a deeper level. We communicate short needs or commands but don't talk. What better opportunity to get into a slow conversation than sharing a break or relaxing by a camp fire?
Did I convince you to make your first hiking trip? Great! If you are not sure where the begin - jump over to my resource page for advice and tips on trails, hiking, and gear.