I’m going to get real with you here: I have not always been as healthy and active as I am today. Post-college, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, and I didn’t know the first thing about spending time in the outdoors. But I knew that I needed to change the direction my life was headed and that I wanted to spend more time outside. I inherently knew that there were a variety of benefits of hiking, so I said yes to hikes and backpacking trips with friends, and I pushed myself past my comfort zone – many times.
As my confidence grew, so did my outdoor skills and ability to go on longer hikes and more remote backpacking trips. Over time, I built a relationship with the outdoors that has truly transformed my life for the better.
Now, more than a decade later, hiking has everything to do with why I’m so enthusiastic about encouraging others to get outside. The benefits of hiking – for me – have been profound, and I think they can be for you, too.
So, why hike? There are the obvious benefits of hiking like good exercise and getting outside. However, the reasons to pursue hiking go far beyond the physical benefits (of which there are many), and extend to finding a healthier and happier life through the outdoors. I’ll also add that right now, having a strong immune system is more important than ever, and through hiking, you can bolster your body’s natural ability to fight off disease.
It has always been the mission of Bearfoot Theory to get people – everyday people – outside to enjoy nature and outdoor activities. If you’re new to outdoor adventures (check out our Hiking 101 Guide here) and want to reap some of the benefits of outdoor exercise, hiking is a great place to start.
Read on to learn more about the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of hiking
PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF HIKING
I’m going to start off by sharing some of the benefits of hiking to your physical health. While some of the physical benefits may be obvious – like weight loss – hiking has some surprising perks.
Hiking is good for the heart
Hiking is great for cardiovascular health. Even light hiking can raise the heart rate to a moderate level which helps improve aerobic fitness and endurance. Over time, your body adjusts to new fitness levels and you can hike longer, faster, and harder without feeling as fatigued or out of breath.
Hiking can also improve markers associated with cardiovascular health like blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol. Studies have shown that going on regular moderate hikes can significantly reduce hypertension, improve glucose tolerance, and decrease ‘bad’ cholesterol levels over time.
So if cardiovascular health is a concern for you, hiking can be a great way to improve your heart health!
Hiking improves balance
I’ll start by sharing that balance hasn’t always been my strong suit, and crossing streams and boulder fields can give me anxiety. That’s one reason I love hiking with trekking poles. However, every time I challenge myself on that kind of terrain, I notice my balance improving, and by the end of summer, I’m much better at trusting my balance. But it isn’t just practice that makes perfect here. There is actually science behind this.
As you walk along a trail, your leg and core muscles are constantly engaging and contracting to provide stability and balance over uneven terrain. As these core stabilizing muscles strengthen over time, balance improves.
But it’s not just stabilizing muscles that improve balance. Hiking also helps increase proprioception, which is the mind’s awareness of the position and movement of the body in relation to its surroundings. As you hike, the brain is processing every rock and root and gauging what it will take to step over obstacles. With practice, the brain becomes more adept at judging these obstacles, and as a result, balance improves.
As we get older, it’s really important to keep working on balance in order to prevent falls. Hiking is a fun way to improve balance while spending time in the outdoors.
Hiking helps build muscle
As we touched on above, one benefits of hiking is it helps build stabilizing muscles in the legs and core to improve balance. But hiking also strengthens other muscles of the body including the arms and back. In fact, hiking is great exercise for almost every major muscle group in the body! Walking uphill engages the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves while hiking downhill engages the ankles, hips, and core.
The arm and back muscles can be strengthened while hiking through the use of trekking poles or carrying a moderate to heavy pack. (Learn how to choose a good hiking pack here)
So if going to the gym isn’t your idea of fun, give hiking a try! It’s a great workout for the whole body and as we’ll talk about below, it’s a great way to calm the mind and release stress too.
Hiking can increase bone density
Bone density refers to the amount of bone mineral in your bones. High bone density is important for preventing broken bones and reducing risk for osteoporosis. High impact and weight-bearing activities like hiking help to improve bone density by strengthening the bone tissue.
But in order for these activities to be effective in increasing bone density, they need to be done at a moderate to high-level. For example, the physical impact of hiking up a steep trail is more beneficial to building bone density than hiking along a flat trail.
Hiking helps with weight loss
While this might not be everyone’s goal, if you do want to lose weight, hiking is a great way to do it. I lost nearly 40 pounds hiking and had a blast doing it (ok it wasn’t all fun, but it was worlds better than the gym).
The number of calories burned during a hike depends on a lot of factors like weight, gender, and aerobic intensity, but if you’re just starting out, even light hiking can result in gradual weight loss.
The recommendation for physical activity for adults is at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week. If your goal is weight loss, try starting out with three 50 minute hikes per week on a local trail.
I first started hiking back in 2006 when I spent a summer on the Big Island of Hawaii. It helped me lose weight and drastically improved my self-esteem.
Mental & Emotional Benefits of Hiking
Hiking eases stress and boosts mental wellbeing
There’s a lot of research supporting the notion that connecting with nature improves mental health and wellbeing. Whether we are taking in the spectacular glow of a sunset or gazing out at a field of wildflowers, these brief experiences of feeling “wowed” by nature can make us feel happy and less stressed.
Forest bathing is a good example. This Japanese practice involves taking a walk or hike in the woods as a way to reconnect with nature and disconnect from the digital world. Spending time in nature can evoke “a reduced sense of self-importance relative to something larger and more powerful” says Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. This feeling can melt away stress and elicit a more positive outlook on life.
In today’s world, stress and mental illness like depression and anxiety are part of everyday life for many people. But spending time in nature can help bring us back to the present and evoke a sense of calm and peace to our otherwise hectic lives.
Hiking allows us to unplug from technology
To expand on the previous point….We’ve become more reliant on technology than ever, and I don’t know about you, but in recent months my screen time has been at an all time high. While technology makes our lives a lot easier, it also comes with unintended consequences.
Living life through our phones and social media can result in anxiety and unhealthy comparison, not to mention being a huge time suck. Social media apps are designed to be addictive, so it’s important to keep this in balance and unplug once in a while…..and what better way than hitting the trail.
Turning off your phone and going for a hike is an opportunity to live in the present moment and disconnect from the pressures that we often feel when we are scrolling.
Hiking can improve your self esteem
When you do hard things, it might not feel great when we are doing them, but how good do you feel afterwards? When you challenge yourself, that sense of accomplishment can lead to improved self-esteem.
A 2010 study found that even 5 minutes of outdoor exercise can lead to you feeling more confident. So imagine how you’ll feel after a day on the trail. Hiking can lead you to feel stronger, more capable, independent, and ready to take on whatever the world throws at you.
Hiking can relieve insomnia and improve sleep
Research has shown that regular exercise can help relieve insomnia and improve sleep patterns. While scientists aren’t quite sure how or why exercise does this, it may have to do with its ability to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind so that the body and mind are able to relax.
Another theory is that being outside and getting natural light can affect sleep patterns. In his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson explains that exposure to sunlight – especially in the morning – is crucial to producing melatonin (the sleep hormone) at night.
So if you need another reason to start hiking, getting a good night’s sleep is a perfect excuse.
Hiking improves memory and brain function
When you hike, blood flows to the brain, carrying with it oxygen and important nutrients. Studies have shown that this increased blood flow improves connections between neurons in the parts of the brain that are in charge of memory and cognitive function. Researchers found that older adults who exercised in short bursts had improved memory compared to those that didn’t.
Often we think we’re too busy with work to go hiking. We tell ourselves that we just need to power through at our computers and cross things off our to-do list. However, the science shows that getting exercise, especially outside, can help our focus and improve our ability to process information, ultimately making our time at our computer more productive.
Hiking builds community
Hiking is a great way to build community. Not only can it forge new friendships, but group activities provide social support and can offset feelings of doubt, worry, or fear.
If you’re not sure where or how to find hiking partners, there are plenty of online resources like MeetUp.com or local Facebook groups and organizations like Women Who Hike that host group hikes and outings. Other places to look are outdoor clubs like the Sierra Club or you could even sign up for an outdoor class through REI or enroll in an outdoor education program such as NOLS or Outward Bound.
If you’re craving more community in your life, giving hiking a try. It’s a great way to meet new friends and like-minded people.
In the long run, making hiking a part of your life can improve your physical health and increase feelings of well-being, both socially and emotionally, which is a major antidote to the stressors of the modern world.
As your body and mind will show you, any time spent in nature is good for the soul. While the science certainly backs it up, the best proof is how you feel at the end of a hike: a smile on your face, tired limbs, and renewed after a great day outside.
Have you experienced any benefits of hiking? Share in the comments below!