21 Health Benefits of Hiking – Backed by Science


health benefits of hiking

It’s no secret that hiking is good for us.  But why is this?  What exactly are the health benefits of hiking?

1.  Hiking Helps Build Muscle

Hiking is a load-bearing exercise that works the muscles in the legs, the glutes, the lower back, the hips, and the abdominals.  Put a daypack on and grab a pair of trekking poles and it will also work the entire upper body as well.

While muscles generally won’t become much larger from hiking, they will become stronger.  They’ll also be more visible as you burn fat each time you hike.

2.  Hiking Helps Prevent Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis occurs as a result of bones shrinking in size and quality.  These bones become less dense and people become more prone to injury.  This often happens as people age and it’s especially prevalent in women.

Fortunately, osteoporosis can be prevented and even reversed by doing load-bearing exercises.  As we mentioned earlier, hiking is a load-bearing exercise and it’s fantastic at preventing osteoporosis.

In fact, according to research done by Harvard, hiking can be more beneficial than running as it’s less likely to result in an injury.  Runners have a 20% – 70% chance of becoming injured while walkers only have a 1% – 5% chance of being injured.

3.  Hiking Improves Your Heart Rate

Heart failure is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.  Most of us know this already and we know that exercise is a great way to reduce our chances of developing heart disease.

But did you know that working out can be as simple as going for a hike?  Studies have shown that moderate cardiovascular exercise for about 150 minutes a week is just as beneficial to your heart as 75 minutes of jogging.  A good hike each week may be all you need to fight off a lifetime of heart disease and a premature death.

4.  Hiking Reduces Cholesterol

High cholesterol is another problem that can be reduced or even eliminated through hiking.  This is important to know as high cholesterol can cause heart attacks, vascular disease, and strokes.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, exercise such as hiking will lower triglycerides and increase a person’s HDL cholesterol, otherwise known as the “good cholesterol”.  Raising HDL levels helps remove LDL cholesterol from your bloodstream.  This reduces your chances of developing clogged arteries.  Researchers agree that you don’t even have to do a lot of hiking to experience this benefit.  A sixty-minute hike once each week could be enough to make a significant impact on your cholesterol levels.

5.  Hiking Lowers Your Blood Pressure

According to Blood Pressure UK, high blood pressure is bad because it puts too much strain on a person’s heart and blood vessels.  The additional strain can leave you susceptible to a heart attack or a stroke.  On top of this, it may even increase your risk of kidney disease and even dementia.

One easy way to combat high blood pressure is by doing 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity.  Hiking falls into this category, making it a great activity for lowering your blood pressure.  This could be done through a one weekend hike or it could be done over the course of several mini-hikes.   For example, if you have a trail close to your office, you could spend 30 minutes hiking it each day before lunch.

If you do decide to go for a longer hike, don’t ruin the additional benefits with salty snacks.  Many people feel that you need to load up on extra salt when hiking, but this simply isn’t true.  You’re probably already getting more than enough salt and the additional salt will only serve to raise your blood pressure.

6.  Hiking Helps to Prevent Diabetes

Type two diabetes can cause many different health problems.  If you develop diabetes you could put yourself at risk of damaged blood vessels, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, loss of limbs, and even blindness.  Fortunately, there are three steps you can take to help prevent diabetes.  These steps consist of following a healthy diet, getting regular checkups, and exercising.

The third step is where hiking comes in.  The folks at Harvard said it best when they said, “If you have diabetes — or for that matter, nearly any other chronic illness — exercise is one of the most powerful tools that can help you control your weight and blood sugar”.  Why spend hours on a treadmill when you can hike your way to good health instead?

7.  Hiking Strengthens Your Immune Systems

The Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine did a study on exercises effects on the immune system and they found that moderate exercise can have a protective effect on our immune systems while intense exercise may be deleterious to our immune systems.  What this means is that you’re much better off going for a hike than you are going for a run.

This is especially true for those that like to challenge themselves by participating in physical activities that few can do.  So next time your friends ask you to run a marathon with them, convince them to go on a long backpacking adventure instead.  This way, you’ll still get to challenge yourself but you won’t have to worry about compromising your immune system in the process.

8.  Hiking Benefits Your Lungs

When you go for a hike, you aren’t just exercising your muscles, but your lungs as well.  With each step you take, your lungs have to work harder to provide your body with more and more oxygen.  Ultimately, this makes your lungs stronger and more efficient.  This gives you the ability to hike longer and longer before becoming short of breath.  It also crosses over to any other physical activities you like to participate in as well.

Another benefit to your lungs that many people fail to recognize is the fresh air you give them when you go for a hike.  According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, “the air within our homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities”.  What’s worse is that most of us spend 90% of our time indoors.  So get outside for a hike and give your lungs a break.

9.  Hiking Improves Your Balance

Hiking forces you to walk on even terrain.  A long hike may have you climbing up boulders, stepping over fallen trees,  scrambling through rocky terrain, or leapfrogging over small streams.  All of these activities improve your balance.

In fact, hiking can often require so much balance that REI recommends that people do balance exercises when training for a hike.  If you’re new to the world of hiking, you may want to start off on trails without steep elevation changes so that you’ll have a chance to build up your balance before challenging yourself to steeper ascents.

10.  Hiking Reduces Your Chances of Injury

Increasing the strength of your bones and muscles while also increasing your balance can make a world of difference in injury prevention.  The fact is that people with good balance are much less likely to fall than people with poor balance.

On top of this, a person with dense bones and strong muscles is much less likely to get hurt when they do fall.   Every day you spend out on the trail strengthens your muscles, thickens your bones, and improves your balance so that in the end your body ends up being much more resilient than it was before you started.

hiking guy

11.  Hiking Increases Your Energy Levels

Fatigue is a big problem in this country right now.  Many people are suffering from low energy levels which can lead to all sorts of other problems.

Ironically, researchers at the University of Georgia have found that the best way to cure fatigue is to do low to moderate-intensity exercise.  What they found was that high-intensity exercise is too much for people who are suffering from fatigue and zero exercise does not accomplish anything.

However, people suffering from fatigue who engaged in low-intensity exercise felt 65 percent less fatigued afterward and people who engaged in moderate-intensity exercise felt 49% less fatigued afterward.  So the next time you’re feeling a bit fatigued, go ahead and take a leisurely hike at your favorite hiking spot.

12.  Hiking Burns Calories

We’ve mentioned this on our hiking vs cycling post as well as our hiking vs running post already, but if you haven’t read them yet, hiking can burn up to 432 calories for a 150-pound person.  It can burn even more calories per hour if you weigh more than 150 pounds.

Burn 3,500 calories over time and you’ll lose an entire pound.  This means that two hours of hiking each week could lead to a loss of 12 pounds each year!

13.  Hiking Increases Attention Spans

ADHD has become a serious issue and many more people are suffering from it than ever before.  Medicine can help but there are other ways to help increase our attention spans with less side effects.  In fact, the Journal of Attention Disorders published a research study done by the University of Illinois that found that hiking is one of these ways in which we can improve our attention spans naturally.

What the research found was that people with ADHD who walked through natural areas scored much better on the Digit Span Backwards test than others who walked through more urban areas.  This research proved that hiking could be used as a form of attention restoration therapy.

14.  Hiking Makes You More Creative

If you’ve ever studied the lives of renowned writers and musicians, it will come as no surprise to you that going for a walk can increase a person’s levels of creativity.  Recently, researchers at Stanford set out to find out if walking really does make a person more creative and the test results conclusively showed that it does.

However, nobody fully understands why hiking makes a person more creative.  Some scientists theorize that it’s because the brain must become much more active when walking.  The reason for this is that while we may take walking upright for granted, it is a complex task that requires many parts of the brain to be used.  So the next time you’re looking for some creative inspiration, take a break and go for a hike.

15.  Hiking Can Improve Your Mood, Reduce Stress, Anger, and Depression

It seems the people over at Stanford love the outdoors as they’ve also done research to find out which areas of our brains are activated and deactivated during a walk through nature.  The results, which can be found in this abstract https://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567.abstract, showed that the parts of our brain that are responsible for stress, anger, and depression were deactivated during and immediately following a person’s walk through nature.

After being exposed to the sounds, smells, and sights of their natural surroundings, people were calm and happy.  Conversely, people who walked through more urban areas tended to be more agitated and unhappy.

16.  Hiking Makes You More Social (Sometimes)

Hiking can be a social activity that people of all ages and fitness levels can enjoy.  There are many different hiking groups throughout the world and most of them are easy to join.

People don’t have to hike together to become more social through hiking either.  Some people make their love of hiking more social by joining volunteer groups dedicated to maintaining their favorite trails.  If you have a trail that you love to hike on, do a quick Google search for volunteer groups surrounding it and consider joining them one weekend.

17.  Hiking Gives You Alone Time

While hiking can be extremely social, it doesn’t have to be.  Personally, I do more hiking alone than I do with people and sometimes I go hiking specifically so that I can be alone.

If you’re thinking about hiking alone, check out my post on solo hiking.  There, you’ll find tips you can use to stay safe and have fun while hiking by yourself.

18.  Hiking Improves Sleep

Hiking improves sleep in two different ways.  Firstly, it provides exercise which has been scientifically proven to improve a person’s ability to fall asleep.  But don’t take my word for it, check out this article written by the Sleep Foundation.  https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-does-exercise-help-those-chronic-insomnia

Secondly, the reduction in anxiety that we talked about earlier, makes it easier for people to relax at night.  Instead of laying in bed ruminating on all of the thoughts that fill them with stress, anger, and anxiety, they drift off to sleep instead.

19.  Hiking Improves Memory

The National Institute of Aging did research that found that walking a mile increases the amount of gray matter within a person’s brain and can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  Further research has shown that even people who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease may be able to slow the rate of progression just by walking 5 miles a week.

Even if you aren’t at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, you can still benefit from the memory benefits that hiking provides.  Hikers tend to gain an additional memory boost over people who exercise in other ways.  Researchers believe the reason for this may be that the ever-changing terrain makes a hiker’s brain work harder than when they walk over more simple terrain like a track or a sidewalk.

20.  Hiking May Lower Your Risk of Getting Cancer

The American Cancer Society has found that regular exercise can reduce the chances of a person from developing over 13 different types of cancer.  These cancers include colon, breast, esophageal, liver, stomach, kidney, myeloid, and endometrial cancers.  All you have to do to obtain this benefit is to walk at a pace of about 3 miles per hour.

One thought to keep in mind when hiking however is that there hasn’t been any research to confirm that exercise can protect you against skin cancer.  What I mean to say by this is that you should still continue to wear sunscreen every time you go for a hike.

21.  Hiking Can Help You Recover From Cancer Treatment

Not only can moderate exercise like hiking reduce your risk of getting cancer, but it can also help you to recover from cancer treatment faster.  In fact, the ACS actually recommends that people with cancer try to remain as physically active as possible.

This being said, they do recommend that you refrain from taxing yourself too much.  Instead of doing vigorous high-impact activities, they recommend more moderate activities like taking a brisk walk.

TL/DR

Hiking increases our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  Do it often and you’ll increase your quality of life as well as your life span.

Christopher Schopf

Christopher Schopf loves camping, hiking, canoeing, and basically anything that gets him outdoors.

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