by Diane Spicer
You might already be familiar with the health benefits of hiking.
Along with insect bites, scrapes and bruises, dehydration, dusty boots and sore muscles, believe it or not!
There are huge upsides to hiking beyond increased physical strength.
Here's a detailed overview of them, plus links to more information about why you just might want to cultivate a hiking habit for life.
But first, a question for you.
Listing the benefits of hiking might seem a little weird, for one simple reason: the benefits are a side effect of hiking, not the prime or main motivator.
Here's the truth:
Hikers hike because we must.
It's hardwired into our bodies.
There is absolutely no rational way to explain the benefits of hiking to a non-hiker by calling them a secondary effect.
Or even ourselves, sometimes (after a cold, muddy day outdoors, perhaps).
I've been on the trail for 50+ years, so I can offer some unique insight into the beneficial side effects of the hiking habit.
So if you count yourself among the individuals who don't hit the trail, yet are curious about the benefits of hiking, welcome!
And if you're already a hiker, you're gonna love putting a check mark in front of all of these benefits your mind and body receives on each and every hike!
There are many types of hikers, and all of us keep hiking for our own personal reasons.
Most of us would agree that there are definite advantages to being a hiker, so let's go ahead and call those the benefits of the trail.
And let's split those bountiful benefits of hiking into three big chunks for purposes of discussion, although they occur simultaneously:
And let's get on the same page here.
Wait, we're both on the same page already.
Alrighty then, let's get even more on the same page with this disclaimer:
A sedentary lifestyle sets you up for trouble, but you, smart hiker that you are, cash in on the following benefits of regular physical activity!
You can also use these 3 categories of the benefits of hiking as good evidence for enticing the unbelievers onto the nearest trail with you.
Time for a closer look at those benefits!
Your body is your hiking vehicle.
It powers you up and down the trail and even carries your backpack for you.
But you might not even realize what a great workout hiking is because you're having too darned much fun getting where you're going.
For a succinct list of the health benefits of hiking, read the American Hiking Society's fact sheet, available as a free pdf.
And if you can find a medical practitioner who will write you a nature prescription (medical advice to include hiking regularly in your life), give her a hug and share your photos of your hikes with her!
Muscular strength, that is.
Consider your heart (cardiac) muscle as the most important part of your hiking engine, and know that a vigorous hike gives it a great workout.
Consider your hikes as monthly contributions in the "strength" column of your "hiking IRA".
Also consider your skeletal muscles, especially the large groups on the front and back of the legs and torso, as keys to improved strength.
You will notice that lifting your backpack after a snack break becomes less effort.
Your back will accept your filled backpack without complaint, even when you throw in an extra water bottle.
You'll crave longer, harder hikes with agility and balance tests like blown down trees or stream crossings.
Improvements in your core strength come with the hiking territory!
And let's give a nod to enhanced bone strength, too.
Asking your muscles to contract over and over again, hour after hour on a hike, trains them to accept the challenge without screaming for a break every few minutes.
You might have observed how your first few hikes of the season seem creaky and tenuous, compared with the end of the season when you're in top form.
Regular hikes train your muscles, and give them regular workouts.
To get into peak condition, take high elevation (peak) hikes whenever possible.
Or choose hiking vacation destinations with lots of elevation gain and loss, like hiking at Mount Rainier National Park:
Try this fun little observation on yourself.
a regular day at home or work, give yourself a tick mark on a notepad
with your favorite pen every time you bend over, stretch, squat or
otherwise engage your muscles in a big movement.
On your next hike, do the same.
Compare the numbers.
Use it or lose it!
Wear an activity tracker or monitor and set it to remind yourself to move every hour. Such a great way to get up out of that chair and take your dogs for a walk, so to speak.
Fact: Calories are food energy (fuel) that your body needs for mental alertness and physical stamina on the trail.
Fact: Hikers can burn whopping amounts of calories compared with other forms of outdoor exercise.
Fact: The amount burned depends on your age, gender, weight and choice of hike.
Fact: Calories are your friends on a hike! Don't be miserly with them in your food sack.
Trail tip: Let your hunger level drive your intake of calories.
If you're hungry, eat.
The tremendous amount of calories you burn on a vigorous or lengthy hike is one of the loveliest benefits of hiking.
It might take some effort to overcome your social conditioning about portions and frequency of snacks.
You have now received Hiking For Her's permission to have that second sandwich if your stomach is still growling!
Here's how to be smart about selecting the right calories for a hike:
A hormone called cortisol is associated with human stress levels.
In fact, it's tagged as "the stress hormone".
Short term, that's important for helping you react appropriately to danger: spotting a bear on the trail, for instance.
But when you're stewing and frustrated about something day after day, your cortisol levels remain elevated without returning to a lower level.
It's been noted that outdoor time in nature can reduce feelings of being anxious, angry or frightened, and thus reduce the stress hormone levels.
In fact, researcher used salivary cortisol levels as an easy to collect measurement of the effects of having access to green spaces on stress levels.
Read one such study by Thompson et al in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning:
Yes, you will reap tremendous benefits from hiking.
Yes, you will also feel stiff and sore and may risk an injury if you're not conditioned properly.
But you can feel better after a hike more quickly with some basic self care and hiking recovery strategies.
Your hard working hiking muscles deserve some time and attention at the end of a hike, using these tips:
To avoid trouble, use these Hiking For Her resources:
Always allow yourself time to recover from a tough hike.
Your muscle fibers need to rebuild and repair so you can meet your next hike with a smile on your face and plenty of gas in the tank.
Now that we've covered some obvious territory, let's switch our attention to the willpower and control center of our hiking body.
We'll begin with the "glass half full" story first.
One of the best side effects of hiking regularly is the ability to channel stress into a productive physical outlet.
Next time you're really steamed at someone, or stressing out about an upcoming event, take a hike.
Make time for yourself, and fit in a hike before you blow a gasket.
Need emergency measures?
Even a 15 minute walk around a parking lot, swinging your arms for all they're worth and breathing deeply, will put you in a much better head space so you make it to another day (hike).
Your concentration and attention to detail will be restored, making you much more effective than you were 15 minutes before.
Okay, here's the truth of modern living:
Sometimes you have to forget quantity ("but it's not a real hike unless it lasts for hours") and focus on quality ("I feel better after a quick stroll".)
All is not sunshine and roses on the hiking trail of life.
So let's not sugar coat this discussion of the benefits of hiking.
Hiking is not a cure all for life's upsets and challenges.
If fact, sometimes hiking can be challenging.
But you have a secret weapon: your mind power.
You will have days when you just don't want to take another step forward.
Or you'll reach your destination and just want to lounge around in the sunshine, napping like a lioness, instead of heading back to the trailhead in plenty of time before nightfall.
You might also run into a trail that whips your butt, leaving you feeling defeated.
You'll begin showering yourself in negative self talk and ugly name calling.
That's the perfect opportunity to cherish an important insight about hiking.
Don't walk away from the trails that challenge you.
Instead, prepare mentally to take them on, and use your super computer inside your skull to formulate a plan of attack.
Here are a few trail tricks (learned the hard way from my own days of feeling slow and stupid) that might get you ready for a hike that you know will push your buttons:
There are some physical supportive efforts you can make as well when you choose a tough (for you) trail:
At the literal end of the day, take 5 minutes to reflect on exactly why you felt defeated, exhausted, or drained.
There's learning to be had, and you want that insight so you can be stronger next time!
Spending time outdoors, combined with repetitive physical movement, delivers the benefits of hiking which we've just discussed.
But let's go further.
Outdoor time has been shown to have a direct correlation to mood, energy levels, and the presence of positive emotions to replace anxiety or depression.
As a regular hiker, I'm sure you've noticed how you come back to "civilization" feeling more calm and centered, more light hearted, ready (if not able) to laugh in the face of adversity.
So harness those benefits for yourself!
And share them.
Example: If you have a teen who is struggling, take them hiking.
Ditto for other family members or friends, as long as they are physically able to hike.
They may protest and drag their heels (perhaps literally), but do what you can to persuade them to give it a try.
Nature therapy is a real thing, and you can read more here.
Depriving kids of time spent in nature has some sobering ramifications.
These developing humans are denied the chance to test their muscle strength, won't perfect their balance and coordination, or learn the extent and wonders of their physical and mental powers.
Nature deprivation has been connected with these negative consequences for growing kids:
And think of the consequence on our precious hiking trails and public outdoor spaces.
They are going to miss out on this generation's attention and devotion to preservation and maintenance.
Kids who are having trouble coping with school might really enjoy a hike with you, and enjoy the benefits of hiking!
You might like to read this paper by Taylor et all entitled Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings in the journal ENVIRONMENT AND BEHAVIOR: free pdf.
The interaction between you as a human and "the outdoors" is a conscious choice every single day, thanks to our modern way of living.
You choose to hike, rather than spend your free time sitting inside in front of screen, shopping, or some other indoor activity.
Ever notice a pattern in how you feel at the end of the day, depending on which choice you made?
ART explores the impact of nature on your state of mind, and the effects of not interacting with nature on a regular basis.
This article is careful to present both the benefits and criticisms of ART for your consideration.
As much as we try to schedule regular hikes, sometimes we get cooped up inside.
Try these approaches to getting your outdoor time if you are indoors:
Now it's time for the last big category of the benefits of hiking, and a deeply personal one.
Define spiritual well being in whatever way works best for you.
It may or may not have an affiliation with a religious group or institution.
It may not have a sanctioned label or a definite word to describe how you feel within the space of your heart.
But however you self identify, know that spending time in nature, doing what you love with the wind in your hair and the sun (or rain) on your back is a perfect way to connect effortlessly with your Source of inspiration.
Walking as a spiritual adventure has a long history in human culture, as demonstrated by El Camino de Santiago pilgrimages which are popular with hikers.
You might like to bring along a book or piece of writing that inspires you on your next hike, and enjoy it whenever you hit a particularly beautiful or tranquil spot.
Deep connection with the beauty that surrounds you restores a part of yourself that you might not have realized was depleted or wounded.
Your trail journal is the perfect place to record what comes up next within you.
You want to hang onto your hard won benefits of hiking in between hikes, right?
Here's how to make every hike count!
This is as true on the trail as off.
Avoid getting stuck in a rut due to habitual choices.
Instead, make a conscious decision to choose a variety of hikes that challenge you in terms of distance, elevation gain, or terrain.
Try winter hiking.
Switch up your trail companions and hike with them for a fresh perspective on outdoor time:
Write down and describe every hike you take.
Example: You'll realize when the hiking intervals are getting larger, even though you tell yourself that you hike "all the time".
Another example: Your past few hikes have been basically the same payoff in terms of physical benefits. Time for something a bit different!
In other words, when faced with the data, especially when it's in your own handwriting or on your phone, it's tough to avoid the reality that you're not using your benefits.
And thus, are in danger of losing them.
Don't lose the strength, stamina, endurance and all of the other benefits of hiking by using an occasional hike as your sole source of exercise.
Support your hiking habit with other types of movement, and enjoy the muscle power, mental focus and serenity on the trail no matter how long it's been since the last hike.
Work on keeping core strength with yoga, swimming, tai chi or step aerobics with abdominal focus.
Keep your flexibility with daily stretching and passive yoga poses (yin form, where you relax into a pose and hold it for several minutes).
Hang onto your stamina with training walks of variable distance on a variety of surfaces.
Try a brand new form of exercise, using a free or low cost class or online program, to work your core and keep your aerobic capacity strong.
Because it's demoralizing to start back at square one every time too much time elapses between hikes.
And a demoralized hiker is a sad hiker :(
A fun way to keep your conscious mind engaged with improving your well being as a hiker is to keep a log of your hikes (see "document" above).
Start with the beginning of your hiking season, and keep recording your impressions through whatever date you hang up your boots for the year.
Or, as urged above, gather data year round with winter hiking and snowshoe adventures.
This approach keeps things private, where only you know that your legs felt like cement or you were sucking wind at the first hint of an elevation gain.
See the benefit of writing things down?
You'll see more gains than losses, perhaps even a surprising amount of them!
Once you stop noticing benefits, you've hit a plateau.
Not all of the benefits of hiking can be planned in advance.
The more you hike, the more you'll notice some changes in your lifestyle.
Your circle of friends might enlarge:
You might meet the love of your life, looking every bit as tired and bedraggled as you do, just around the next bend in the trail.
Your vocabulary will enlarge to make room for words like "electrolytes" and "base weight".
You'll find yourself shopping in a different section of your favorite hiking clothing store, due to your smaller waist size.
One day you'll look up and grin at the plethora of hiking maps pinned above your computer
Let's go ahead and add these blessings of a rich and rewarding hiking life to the benefits list we compiled above.
It may appear that I'm
bribing enticing you into life as a hiker by sharing all of these benefits of hiking.
You have so much to gain, and with the trustworthy hiking tips on this website, you now have the knowledge to hit the trail in comfort and safety.
Here's to your long life as a healthy hiker!
And to the buckets of benefits you've earned :)
Physical, Mental And Spiritiual Benefits Of Hiking
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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