Manish Menda 16 Sep 2022

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Sony Sherpa (MBBS) - September 16, 2022

In the present day and age of social media, office jobs, indoor living spaces, long commutes inside vehicles, and internet-based remote work, we hardly have time to take in a breath of fresh air. Building a relationship with the outdoors is one way to transform your life for the better, and what better way than hiking?

Hiking is essentially a long, vigorous walk, usually on trails or footpaths in the countryside. With hiking, you derive all the cardiovascular benefits of other aerobic activities, with minimum stress, strain, and pounding to your body. It is also an excellent opportunity to spend time in nature, improve your sense of well-being, and explore new places.

Apart from the sound of the wind rushing through the trees overhead, warm sunshine on your face, and the soft earthy feel of the trail under your boots, hiking is also a fully adjustable exercise. Irrespective of age or ability level, all hikers can find an appropriate challenge. You can start on an easy trail and work your way up to a full-blown mountain!

This article explores the physical, mental, and social health benefits of hiking and why it’s a good idea to put your trail shoes on.

What Are The Health Benefits Of Hiking?

Curious to know what they are? Here’s a look at 14 benefits of hiking, so the next chance you find yourself out in the woods on a hike, you’ll feel excellent and also know why.

1. Improves Cardiovascular Fitness And Heart Health

Hiking does not generally spike your heart rate as quickly as high-intensity cardio or running. But its ability to get your heart pumping is not to be underestimated.

A hike is a good way to improve cardiovascular fitness, particularly if your route includes steep inclines. Inclines force your heart to work harder. But even if your trail does not have a lot of elevation gain, you can still reap the benefits.

Hiking is a form of aerobic (or cardio) exercise that increases your heart and breathing rates. This occurs because your body (and the organs involved) have to work much harder to supply the increased oxygen requirement while hiking.

The heart benefit of hiking also comes from the increased blood flow to the small vessels around your heart. These are common places where blockages can build over time. The increase in the flow of blood can help lower your risk for heart disease. It can also improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Studies have also shown that going on regular moderate hikes can significantly reduce hypertension and decrease bad cholesterol levels over time, both of which contribute to a healthy heart.

Additionally, hiking on slightly uneven trail surfaces naturally engages the core muscles in your torso. This will eventually hone your balancing skills. This type of lateral movement cannot be obtained from riding a bike or walking on a treadmill.

2. Natural Stress Relief

Evidence suggests that going on a hiking trip can be extremely beneficial for your mental health.

This can be attributed to the restorative and stress-relieving powers of being outside in nature. The activity helps you manage the stressors in a fast-paced world, bringing you in with nature and your body. Hiking also encourages the body to release happiness hormones or endorphins that make you feel happy and less stressed.

2015 research published in the Journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” found that nature walks yield measurable mental benefits and may also reduce the risk of depression. 

In the study, two groups of people walked for 90 minutes, one along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway and the other in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs. The researchers measured heart rates and respiration, conducted brain scans, and had participants fill out questionnaires before and after.

Results showed that people who walked for 90 minutes in nature, as compared to a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased brain activity in a region associated with a key factor in depression. The nature experience also helped lower levels of rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self) and showed reduced neural activity, both of which are linked with mental illness.

This finding demonstrates the impact of nature's experience on emotion regulation which may help explain how nature makes us feel better.

Besides this, hiking increases sun exposure, providing many health benefits, including vitamin D synthesis. This is an essential nutrient that contributes to bone health, immune health, and improved mood regulation.

3. Helps With Weight Loss

Hiking is a great way to shed those extra pounds.As per the CDC, a 154-pound individual can burn 370 calories on average for every 60 minutes of hiking, which is more calories than any other moderate physical activity (including dancing, playing golf, light gardening, bicycling, stretching, walking, and weight lifting).

Moreover, hiking provides an element of cross-training because it is simultaneously a cardio activity and a strength trainer.

Several factors determine the number of calories burnt when hiking for weight loss. Things like weight, age, gender, body composition, the intensity of the activity, and your overall amount of daily activity.

If your aim is weight loss, try starting with three 50-minute hikes per week on a local trail. For more seasoned hikers, here are a few tips to burn extra calories when hiking. But remember, you should always be realistic about what your body can handle.

  • Carry a hiking backpack with extra water.
  • Choose trails with elevation gain and uphill sections.
  • Opt for rugged terrain with rocks and roots.
  • Engage in a short sprint.
  • Hike against the wind.
  • Try ankle and/or wrist weights.
  • Use hiking poles.
  • Pick up the pace, especially on uphill terrain.
  •  Incorporate a few squats and lunges.

4. Get Better Sleep

Research has shown that exercise, including hiking, is an effective way to improve sleep quality.

Sunlight exposure during hiking releases serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical that helps balance your circadian rhythms, leading to improved sleep. Moreover, exposure to sunlight, especially in the morning, is crucial to producing the sleep hormone melatonin at night - a good reason to get up for that morning hike.

Sleep is also regulated by body temperature, which naturally goes up in the daytime and drops at night to clue the body into rest. Hiking can raise and keep body temperature up as much as two degrees. The temperature drops later in the day, helping the body cool down to sleep at night.

Additionally, hiking is a full-body workout that exerts physical and mental energy. Studying maps, pushing through a challenging hike, and navigating trails can require a lot of mental fortitude. By the end of the day, all of that physical and mental exertion encourages our bodies and minds to relax and recharge with a peaceful night’s rest.

5. Build Strong Bones And Muscles

Bones and muscles are living tissues that become stronger with exercise.

Weight-bearing and high-impact activities such as hiking help to improve bone density by strengthening the bone tissue. Hiking helps reverse the adverse effects of osteoporosis by slowing the rate of calcium loss and increasing bone density. This leads to the strengthening of the bones and decreases their susceptibility to break.

A study by The University of Washington found that women with osteoporosis who walked for one hour thrice a week increased their bone density in the spine and other parts of the body by 6% over nine months.

Whether it’s a rolling hill, steep ascent, gradual climb, or anything in between, each hike presents your body with a new challenge. Your body will have to adapt to different terrain and slope angles, so you will have to utilize different muscle groups throughout the day.

For instance, the downhill sections target your hip and knee flexors, while the inclines are great for strengthening the hamstrings, calves, quads, and glutes.

Hiking also activates your core, the set of stabilizing muscles in your torso. And, if you choose to carry a backpack, the extra weight works to strengthen your arms, shoulders, and back - a true full-body workout.

6. Improve Balance

Developing your balance helps reduce the risk of injury from falls and can benefit your overall quality of life.

As discussed previously, hiking requires the use of many muscle groups. As you walk along a trail, your core and leg muscles constantly contract and engage to provide balance and stability over uneven terrain. As these muscles strengthen over time, stability and balance improve.

Apart from stabilizing the muscles, hiking also helps increase proprioception, which is your body's ability to sense movement, action, and location.

Think of it this way: as you hike, the brain is processing every route. It continuously gauges what it will take to step over obstacles. With time and practice, the brain becomes more adept at judging obstacles, thereby improving balance.

7. May Prevent Cancer

Oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body, is believed to be a strong factor in cancer onset, progression, and recurrence.

A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine explored the relationship between sport and oxidative stress in patients with various forms of cancer.

To investigate how oxidative stress is influenced by physical activity, researchers measured antioxidative capacity and oxidative stress in 6 men with prostate cancer and 12 women with breast cancer. This was done before and after long hiking trips. Based on the results, the study concluded that long-distance hiking trips can improve the antioxidative levels of patients with cancer.

While this is not direct evidence of the cancer-curing ability of hiking, it is certainly a positive indication for prevention and recovery.

8. Build Endurance

Research reveals that the best form of endurance training is low-intensity exercise over longer time frames, hiking being a perfect example.

Hiking is a relatively low-intensity exercise than other forms of cardio, such as running. On most hikes, you can still talk to a friend while you are moving. This is considered to be heart rate zone 2, or 60–70% of the maximum heart rate.

Exercising in heart rate zone 2 improves your general endurance. Your body will get better at burning fat, and your muscular fitness will increase along with your capillary density.

Hike at a pace that you can maintain for a long time. Avoid doing energetic spurts followed by breaks. Your goal should be to sustain activity for a certain time or distance, not speed.

9. Enhance Connection With Nature

During a hike, you have ample time to connect with nature. You can fully immerse yourself in the surroundings as you slowly move through the landscape. Exploring outdoors can activate all your senses. As you unplug from the tumults of everyday life, this full-body experience gives you an array of benefits.

For some, hiking not only makes you feel more in tune with nature’s rhythms but also inspires greater commitment to conservation efforts.

10. Cross Train For Other Sport

Cross-training involves engaging in sports other than your main sport to improve overall performance.

While hiking, you’re pushing your heart, lungs, muscles, and bones to work harder and become stronger with every step.  It also activates your legs and spine for a lower body workout unlike any other. Likewise, increased balance and reflexes are other bonuses.

All of these reasons make hiking a great cross-training activity, even for many professional athletes. Sports experts say one of the best ways to get and stay fit is to expose the body to new challenges. Hiking builds endurance, making it an effective way to prepare for any physical activity that life throws your way.

11. Foster New Connections

Shared experiences can be a great way to strengthen relationships, and what better place to reconnect than the great outdoors?

Hiking isn’t all about Instagram-worthy mountaintops and sunset views. The activity requires navigating important decisions like taking breaks, setting the pace, handling inclement weather, and decoding trail maps.

These challenges require constant communication, team efforts, and problem-solving with your hiking crew. This makes it the perfect activity to foster new connections and strengthen existing bonds with loved ones.

Moreover, finding others who share your love of hiking can also add an element of much-needed social interaction to your weekly routine.

So next time you go for a hike, grab a friend, a family member, or a neighbor, to bring along.

12. Unplug From Technology

We have become more reliant on technology than ever, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.  Screen time has hit an all-time high. While technology makes our lives easier, it also has unintended consequences.

Living life through our phones and social media can physically strain our eyes and bodies. It can also cause impaired socializing skills and chronic neck and back problems, along with depression, anxiety, and sleep issues.

It is important to unplug once in a while, so how about hitting the trail? Turn off your phone and go hiking for a chance to live in the present moment, disconnecting from the pressures we often feel when scrolling.

13. Improve Self Esteem

Outdoor exercise, like hiking, can boost self-esteem. According to a 2010 study, hiking, as a natural and green exercise, helps improve your mood and self-esteem.

A sense of accomplishment leads to improved self-esteem. Successfully reaching the summit of an uphill climb or otherwise challenging yourself to a rugged out-and-back trail can yield such fulfillment.

14. Increase Brain Power

Hiking elevates mental fortitude to new heights. When you are out in nature, you have to maintain a heightened sense of your surroundings. You need to be on the lookout for trail markers, hazards, or wild animals that might cross your path.

All of these things require evaluating situations and adjusting, which is very good for the brain. This mental awareness activates different parts of the brain, keeping your mind sharp.

Apart from this, hiking increases blood flow to the brain, carrying with it oxygen and important nutrients. Research has shown that increased blood flow improves connections between neurons in the parts of the brain that are in charge of cognition and memory.

The Bottom Line

Hiking improves your physical well-being and benefits your mental health and social life. It is a great form of cardio that can help with weight loss, stress, endurance, brain power, and self-esteem. Additionally, it helps enhance connection not only with nature but also with others.

And as busy as our modern lives can get, a regular foray into nature is well worth the time. Aren’t these enough reasons to hike more often?

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About the Author:

Manish Menda is one of the Co-Founders of Mya Care. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Business Administration from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Manish is an avid entrepreneur and pioneered patient financing in India. Manish and his family founded Mya Care with the intention to empower patients and give them the tools they need to find health and wellness services for their specific needs around the world. Manish leads an active lifestyle, and his hobbies include cycling, hiking, padel tennis, swimming, weight training and yoga.