When most people think of getting in shape they think of running, working out at the gym, counting calories, or going on a diet. Not many think “I want to get in shape, maybe I should start hiking.” However, there are several health benefits of hiking. Besides getting your heart rate up and burning calories it is also a huge mood booster!
So what are the health benefits of hiking?
When I first became an avid hiker (hiking daily or at least 4 times a week) I noticed a dramatic improvement in not only my physical ability but also my mood and energy levels. Honestly, it shocked me at how quickly I noticed the change. I didn’t start hiking regularly as a form of exercise (even though I did need to lose about 20 pounds and I was a smoker with high-stress levels). In fact, I began hiking regularly simply because we had just moved to a new area that had several miles of hiking trails and I wanted to explore them.
My first outing, I hiked 1 mile. Yes, just one mile; however I felt accomplished, my mood had immediately improved and I left the trail feeling energized. This was in the mid-summer Texas heat Y’all! I also had zero cravings for a cigarette! WHAT?!
So without further ado, here are some of the health benefits of hiking:
Mood Improvement & Stress Relief: There is something about being out in the fresh air, away from phones, computers, rude people (haha) that just improves your mood immediately. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, “A number of small studies hint that spending time in green space — nature preserves, woodlands, and even urban parks — may ease people’s stress levels.” I can certainly testify to this! A simple easy mile at my local trail immediately relieves stress and improves my mood!
Weight Loss: Hiking can burn anywhere from 350-600 calories per hour depending on your body weight, speed, and terrain; and that is just for a leisurely hike with a pack that weighs under 10 pounds (typically a Camelbak with water)! When you compare that to 200-400 calories per hour burned for a brisk walk, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start hiking sooner! To put it in a little more perspective take an average 160-pound person, hiking for an hour would burn 504 calories compared to 288 calories by walking!
Improve Balance / Strengthen Core: These two go hand in hand. One way to improve balance is to strengthen your core muscles and hiking does just that! I also found that it strengthened my ankles as well, making me less prone to rolling my ankles and getting a nasty sprain.
Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness: This includes heart, lungs and blood vessels.
Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
Help with Depression
Reduce or lower your risk for high cholesterol and triglycerides: In fact, when I became so busy with life and forgot about the trail for almost a year, I for the first time in my life had high cholesterol (it was just borderline high). The first thing my doctor asked was “you stopped hiking, didn’t you?”
Helps or Reduces the Urge to Smoke: Ok, so I am not sure this has ever been studied, but I know from personal experience as well as through other hiker friends, that they quit smoking by hiking or dramatically cut down on tobacco usage. I always found that when my feet hit the trail, I had no urge to smoke (ok maybe once or twice during a long hike while on a break, but the urge quickly passed), in fact, I made it a point to never hike with a pack of smokes. I actually quit smoking due to hiking regularly (and I was a pack a day smoker).
Improve Muscle Strength: Another health benefit of hiking is improved muscle strength especially in the core, glutes, hip, and leg areas! If you have never hiked before, spend 2-3 miles on a trail and you will soon realize you have muscles you never knew you had!
Improve Bone Density: Studies have shown that weight-bearing activities such as walking or hiking produce a force on the bones that promotes bone growth and strength.
Lower Your Risk of Certain Cancers: According to research, doing between 210 and 420 minutes of moderate exercise a week (such as hiking) significantly lowers the risk of colon cancer and breast cancer than being inactive. While not definitive, some research suggests that the risk of endometrial cancer in women and lung cancers in men and women also may be lower among those who are regularly active compared to those who are inactive1.
Improve Sleep Quality -of all the health benefits of hiking, I found this to be the foundation for everything else. Without a good night’s sleep I cannot function and your body cannot repair itself.
Reduce the Risk of Developing Type 2 Diabetes
How Quickly do the Health Benefits of Hiking Take Place?
Just like with any new exercise regiment, it could take weeks or months of continuous hiking (4-6 hours a week) to notice health improvements. I will say this, I noticed immediate mood improvement and sleep quality within my first hike. In fact, my mood improved almost instantaneously as soon as my foot hit the trail. Granted everyone is different, but for most, they start seeing some of these benefits as soon as the first hike!
As always, make sure to check with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise regiment (even hiking) as I am not a doctor or any kind of medical professional. The most I know is CPR, First Aid, and I am a pro at applying band-aids!
How has hiking helped you? Comment below and let us know!
1. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines, Chapter 2 – health.gov