Take a Hike!
Health Benefits of Hiking

Hiking is one of the easiest workouts to pick up, because all you need is an outdoor space with an incline and a good pair of shoes. There’s nothing better than getting out for some fresh air after being cooped up all winter.

Hiking has benefits for both physical and mental health and is a great option for cross training for athletes. Whether you’re going out for an easy, leisurely hike or taking on a challenging trail run, you’ll reap the benefits hiking has to offer.

Being in Nature is Good for Our Mental Health

According to recent research, people who live in cities have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses than those who live outside urban areas. Notably, people who live in cities also spend less time outside.

A study published in 2015 found that walking in a tree-lined green space not only improved people’s self-reported mental health, but also decreased activity in the participants’ subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area that is associated with rumination, which can be a precursor to depression. This was compared to a control group who walked for the same amount of time in an urban environment and did not experience any significant improvements in mental health.

Further research has shown that regular hiking decreases stress and can even help improve memory. While walking in any environment has benefits, taking a hike in the quiet of a park or on a mountain takes those benefits to the next level.

Cardiovascular Exercise

In addition to improved mental health, hiking is great for physical health. One of the most obvious benefits is improved cardiovascular fitness. The incline associated with hiking is part of what makes it so great: the greater the incline, the more you’ll get your blood pumping. With improved cardiovascular fitness, you’ll enjoy decreased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate cardiovascular exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous cardiovascular exercise. That breaks down to 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week, of moderate exercise, which studies suggest can be done in intervals as short as 10 minutes and still be beneficial. With one hour-long hike per weekend, you’ll be well on your way to meeting those recommendations.

Improved Muscular Fitness

Not only will hiking get your heart rate going and help improve your cardiovascular fitness, it’s also a great way to improve your muscular fitness. Hiking is a weight-bearing exercise, and with each step up the incline, you engage some of the largest muscles in your body: your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. Every time you hoist your bodyweight further along the trail, those muscles fire into action. If you’ve ever been on a steep hike, you’ll know it isn’t all about the uphill either. Controlling your body’s momentum on the downhill is in large part thanks to your quads. They engage to help brace you as you move downhill, so you don’t go tumbling.

Because you’ll want to stay hydrated and energized, if your hike is longer than a couple of miles, you’ll probably be carrying some sort of backpack with supplies. For safety reasons, it’s a good idea to always have a first aid kit and basic supplies regardless of your hike length, just in case. An added benefit of carrying supplies is that wearing a backpack forces your core to engage to keep you stable and balanced, meaning a workout for your abdominal and back muscles without ever doing a crunch!

Health Benefits of Hiking

Hiking as Cross Training

Whether you’re a runner looking for hill work or a lifter who needs to improve the functioning of your hip and knee stabilizers, hiking is a great way to incorporate cross training. Cross training essentially means exercising in multiple different ways. It is important because it can help reduce your risk of injury, control your weight, and make exercise more interesting.

For long-distance runners, hill work is a necessary evil. Hiking is a great way to challenge the same muscle groups you work while running hills, get a great cardio workout, and do something a little different than usual. While a walking-pace hike can offer these great benefits, a trail run is an even better way to get in your hill work.

Even if you aren’t a runner, cross training is important, and hiking can be a great option. Because of the variable nature of hiking trails, your body must constantly adjust to the terrain. This means that the muscles that aid in ankle, knee, and hip stability are being called upon with every step, something that doesn’t happen if you’re walking on an incline on the treadmill or climbing the StairMaster.

Choosing your Hike

Hiking doesn’t have mean climbing to the top of a mountain. There are many difficulty levels of hiking trails to choose from for every fitness level.

Trail Difficulty Rating System

Beginner Hikes

If you’re a beginner, you may want to start with a mostly flat hike at a leisurely pace. Get used to the changing terrain, loose rocks, and tree roots coming up through the ground. As you become accustomed to adapting to the terrain, you can move on to more challenging hikes.

Some trails will also be better maintained than others, so look for a fairly easy hike with well maintained trails. You don’t want to go out as a beginner hiker and find yourself on a trail with downed trees or otherwise impassable paths if you aren’t comfortable finding your way around obstacles and back to the trail.

Speaking of finding your way on the trail, some trails have better markers than others. Trail markers can also change along the way from being paint to ribbons, rock piles, or more. Get used to finding your way and following a variety of trail markers before moving on to different trails.

Go Higher

Increased elevation is one great way to make your hikes more challenging. Choosing a greater gain in elevation means more cardio, more muscle conditioning, and the potential to need to use more than just your feet. It isn’t uncommon to see hikers using hiking poles on particularly steep hikes, and you can expect to use your hands to help traverse the boulders you may encounter if you’re climbing to the top of a mountain.

A caveat about increased elevation that newer hikers may not consider is that a change in elevation can mean changes in temperature and weather conditions. Dress in easily removable layers and moisture-wicking material to help you stay comfortable and safe in any conditions you may encounter.

Go Longer

Elevation is just one way to make your hikes more challenging, and distance is another. Progressing from a hike that you can do in under an hour to hikes that take several hours to complete can be more challenging than you might expect, so it’s important to make that increase slowly. The most challenging aspect of increased distance is keeping an eye on your energy level and ability, and gauging what you expect them to be in the future. While you may feel like you can go on forever when you’re an hour into a hike, you may find at the end of the second hour that you have more than halfway to go and less energy than you need to do that. Increase your distance slowly until you get a sense of how your body reacts to more time spent on the trail.

Go Faster

If you’re a runner, you may want to take your hikes to the next level by transitioning from walking the trails to running them. Whether you run the entire trail or do a mix of running and walking, the combination of hills and speed will add to the cardio and muscular-conditioning benefits of the hike. It’s also a lot more enjoyable than running laps around a track or on sidewalks in the city. If you plan to run on trails that are particularly challenging, you may want to invest in shoes that are specific for trail running, which offer more protection for your feet and tread patterns to grip the trail and avoid slipping.

Stay Safe

Regardless of your physical ability or the difficulty of the hike you’re taking, always be prepared for emergencies. Carry basic supplies such as water, snacks, and a first aid kit even on short hikes. For longer hikes, come prepared with extra clothes and options for emergency shelter, just in case. Enjoy the trails, connect with nature, get in a great workout – and always take your trash with you!

Safe Hiking Checklist So lace-up your hiking shoes, and get outside! You will feel happier and healthier as you become one with the great outdoors!
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