Since the onset of the pandemic, people have begun looking elsewhere to get active and enjoy the benefits of exercise. This is what has led hiking to significantly grow in popularity over the past year. Now, 59.1% of active adults see outdoor activities like hiking as the best way to stay fit in 2021, according to the fitness trends 2021 report.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency says an average American spends more than 90% of their daily life indoors and tends to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Though this may seem like a dream for introverts, spending your everyday life indoors has a negative effect on human health.
To shed light on the health benefits of hiking and spending time in nature, we spent 80 hours analyzing over 100 studies. This review breaks down the benefits of hiking into the following segments:
- Heart health
- Physical fitness
- Forest bathing
- Brain and mental health
- Bone and joint health
- Weight Loss
- Social benefits of hiking
Health benefits of hiking
Increasing physical activities, in general, provides humans with a ton of physical and psychological benefits. But increasing mobility while outdoors has been known to multiply its positive effects.
Studies suggest that taking a nature pill or spending time in nature lowers cortisol levels by 21% per hour. Furthermore, spending 120 minutes or more per week out in mother nature improves overall health and well-being.
Combining these benefits with the benefits of walking makes hiking a potent approach to holistic health.
Regular hiking improves heart health
You can think of hiking as the next level of walking. It is more physically demanding than walking as you have to tackle various types of terrains, and climbing hills and descending them requires more energy. Hiking gets your heart rate up and opens more opportunities to improve overall heart health similarly to the benefits of cardio.
- Lower cholesterol levels by 10% if you do it 3-5 times a week
- Reduce total cholesterol level by 29% if done for 118 days
- Increase HDL, or good cholesterol, by 37% after 4 months of doing the activity
- Decrease triglyceride levels by 75.2% after more than three months of hiking
Furthermore, engaging in moderate to intense physical activity like walking or hiking:
- For more than 30 minutes a day, for 5 days a week, can reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 19%
- For 11 hours or more per week decreases all-cause mortality risk by 11%
- Can reduce all-cause mortality by 60-70%, regardless if a person is prescribed statins
- Ten thousand steps a day, for 5 months, can lower your systolic blood pressure by 2.25 points
Fitness benefits of hiking for muscle, endurance, strength, and conditioning
Hiking is also a great workout to improve your overall level of physical fitness. Although you won't be engaging your full-body in the same way a rowing machine workout benefits you, you can still expect noticeable improvements in fitness.
Traversing different inclines and paths requires you to use core muscles and the different muscles of your legs to keep your balance. In some cases, you need to use your upper limbs to climb up or prevent yourself from sliding a slippery slope.
Hiking on uneven surfaces can:
- Increase leg muscles by 30%
- Bulk up thigh muscles by 60%
- Increase step length variability by 22%
- Widen step width variability by 36%
Additional health benefits of hiking include:
- Increased endurance for runners by 35%
- Improved VO(2max) by 14 to 28% non-hikers
- Hematocrit, the blood protein that regulates hemoglobin and helps in oxygenation, increases by 2.3 to 7.3%
Forest bathing - the benefits of being outdoors
Forest bathing is described as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” The practice came from Japan and it provides people with physical and psychological benefits.
Exposure to nature helps in the production of Vitamin D which is essential for the absorption of calcium that helps keep our bones strong, prevent some types of cancer (prostate cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, rectal cancer), and manage blood sugar levels.
Forest bathing can:
- Increase cancer-fighting cells by 50%
- Decrease blood sugar levels by 52.7%
- Enhance the blood sugar lowering effect of metformin by 21%
- Reduce the incidence of diabetes mellitus by 12.3%
Hiking for seniors and older adults
Hiking is one of the most recommended forms of regular exercise for seniors as it offers both physical and mental health benefits.
Walking on inclines, slopes, and various types of surfaces enhances focus and concentration. The tricky terrain also helps the elderly improve their balance.
Hiking develops the muscles of the lower legs which can mitigate lower limb weakness brought about by aging. Several studies showed that seniors who hiked or did forest bathing showed a lower level of:
- Systolic blood pressure by 11.5%
- Diastolic blood pressure by 8.5%
- Fatigue by 55.6%
- Confusion by 38.8%
- Tension-anxiety by 80%
- Anger-hostility by 93%
- Depression by 79%
Meanwhile, older adults who hiked while also using trekking poles experienced the following benefits:
- Increase static balance by 133.9%
- Improve functional balance by 4.5%
- Enhance upper limb flexibility by 44.6%
- Improve arm strength by 19.7%
- Heighten lower limb flexibility by 75.4%
- Increase lower limb strength by 17.9%
- Strengthen hand-grip by 11.8%
Hiking combined with the powerful benefits of strength training for seniors is a phenomenal way to holistically address the changes that come with aging.
Benefits of taking a hike for your mental health, brain, and cognition
Hiking requires people to learn new skills like reading a map or compass. Additionally, you are moving your body in different ways and even enhancing spatial awareness in the same way biking benefits you. All these activities can lead to the production of new neurons in the brain which, in turn, has positive effects on memory, focus, and even mood, similar to how .
Some of the brain health benefits of hiking include:
- Improve creativity and problem-solving skills by 50%
- Lower cortisol levels by 21%
- Reduce feelings of depression and dejection by 31.1%
- Elevated alpha wave levels in the brain after 15 minutes of forest bathing leads to relaxation
- Short term memory improvement by 20% after an hour in nature
- The enhanced focus for children with ADHD after 20 minutes of exposure to nature.
Hiking for stronger bones and healthier joints
All weight-bearing physical activity like jumping rope benefits your overall bone and joint health. Hiking has been observed to have a similar effect on the bone density of the legs, spine, and joints.
Some bone and joint health benefits of hiking include:
- Decrease bone resorption 19.1 - 21.8%
- Improve bone density in the lumbar and femoral neck by 6.8%
- Increase all joint power variability by 50%
Benefits of hiking for weight loss
Although hiking won't melt fat off of you in the same way HIIT benefits you, it is still an extremely effective form of exercise to shed some pounds. Hiking is an intense form of walking, with inclines, declines, uneven terrain, and other factors that increase the difficulty.
In addition to being more difficult, it also allows hiking to target more muscles involved in balance, stabilization, and engages muscle groups involved more intensely than walking.
According to several studies:
- Walking can burn 141-563 calories per hour depending on your speed and as much as 916 calories hiking uphill
- Four months of hiking reduces 13.4% of a person’s total body weight
- Total body fat is decreased by 51% by hiking for more than 3 months
- Overweight adolescents who participated in an outdoor exercise program lost 66% more weight compared to those who worked out indoors
- A 154-lb person can burn 185 calories hiking for 30 minutes or 370 calories by hiking for an hour
- Walking on an uneven hiking trail can burn 28% more calories than walking on a flat trail
Social benefits of hiking
Hiking can be done solo or with a group. Both options have their pros and cons like safety in numbers when in a group, and not worrying about someone else’s schedule if you’re going at it alone.
Benefits of hiking alone
- You don't have to rush because you can go at it at your own pace
- You don't have to worry about anyone else’s schedule but your own
- You don't have to wait for anyone
- It allows you to focus on yourself and your thoughts
- You can revel in the beauty of mother nature, clear your thoughts, and enjoy your surroundings in peace
- It also gives you a sense of empowerment as you accomplish something without help from others
- Another benefit of hiking alone is that it's also a great way to meet new people who enjoy the same thing as you
Benefits of hiking with friends
- A hiking trip is a good way to catch up with friends, without the nuisance of social media or other gadgets
- Some hiking trails can be challenging, and having friends around can help you navigate those
- Hiking can help build new and fun memories with friends
- If you and your buddies love some friendly competition, hiking can be turned into a challenge as to which one of you can reach the campsite or the peak the fastest
- Hiking with friends can also make a long hike seem short as chatting away can help you take your mind off of how far you still need to go
Benefits of hiking with family
- Similar to hiking with friends, hiking with family is also a great way to connect with them
- Some can utilize this time to talk and resolve some issues or just air your thoughts on some things that you think need to be discussed
- If you have kids, hiking can be a great teaching tool on the importance of mother nature and how to care for it
- Another benefit of hiking with family is that you can use this time to teach little kids to clean after themselves and not leaving their trash behind
Is hiking really good for you?
Hiking is a good form of physical activity that combines traveling, exercise, and relaxation. So not only does it help condition your physical well-being, but it also reduces stress and sharpens your mind.
Another upside of hiking is that it is also a great way to meet new people who are interested in forest exploration. Plus, if you have your friends or family with you, hiking can help you catch up without the distraction of gadgets and the internet.
Can hiking cure depression?
Several studies have shown that those who spend a significant time in a natural environment are less likely to ruminate or have negative thoughts. Not to mention, increasing mobility also decreases cortisol, our body’s stress hormone that can disrupt the normal function of the body.
What shoes should you wear when you hike?
Hiking shoes are equipped with a sole that has a lot of deep grooves and a tread pattern that provides a multidirectional grip. This bottom design aids in walking on various terrains without losing foot.
Another unique feature of some hiking boots is the heel brake. These studs found under the heel of the sole amplifies traction during descents.
Some hiking boots are waterproof so you won’t have to worry about wet, soggy socks if you need to cross shallow streams or if it suddenly rains. Hiking boots also come in high- and mid-cut models to suit your needs. Some people prefer hi-cut hiking boots for the ankle support they provide. Meanwhile, mid-cut hiking shoes promote better ankle mobility.
How often should you go hiking to reap its benefits?
As often as you can. But even hiking once a month can help others reset and refocus. They said the most effective hike is when it’s done for two consecutive days. It reduces stress levels and even lowers blood pressure. But if you’re after substantial health benefits, like weight loss or muscle gain, hiking once a month won’t give you the results you’re after.
Should you use poles for hiking?
Nordic walking, or using walking poles when you hike, has grown in popularity. Studies have shown that these walking sticks help engage the upper body, thereby burning more calories, but at the same time, reduce the load and stress on the joints of the lower extremities.
So, if you have the poles, bring them on your next hike and experience a different kind of walking experience.
Is hiking good for sleep?
According to a study done by the National Sleep Foundation, people who walk regularly or increase their daily step count, sleep longer hours, and have better quality sleep. However, this is only true for women. Men’s increased physical exercise while awake does not have a direct relation to their sleep amount and quality.
Walking helps you sleep better because you spent energy hiking, so your body wants to recover and does so by sleeping. Think of sleeping as your reset button. Another reason hiking affects your sleep is that exposure to mother nature means spending more time in natural light.
A 2013 study revealed that people who spent more time outdoors experience Melatonin onset 2 hours earlier than those who spend more time indoors. However, spending time outdoors doesn't directly affect sleep quality and duration.
Numerous studies have proven that spending time outdoors, especially in a natural environment, for a few hours a week, results in positive changes in a person, especially their mental wellbeing.
If you want to lower your blood pressure, clear your mind, reduce stress, and even lose some inches off of your belly, but rigorous workouts aren't your thing, then consider hiking. You can do it solo or with family or friends, and it’s cheaper than paying for a gym membership fee.
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