The health benefits of hiking are profound, although perhaps unsurprising to those of us who love taking regular walks in the great outdoors.
That being said, there’s an abundance of scientific studies emerging which back-up thousands of years of anecdotal evidence: hiking makes you happier, improves mental clarity and is a highly enjoyable and effective exercise for improving overall health and well-being. Oh and it’s easy to get started and (almost) free to boot.
Here’s 9 of the best health benefits of hiking you should share with any non-believers!
If you’ve ever gone on a day hike or even just a gentle stroll through the countryside, you’ll already know how it makes you more relaxed and content.
And you haven’t been imagining things; according to a study conducted on thousands of hikers in England’s Walking for Health Program, those who chose to consistently participate in the walks on a weekly basis experienced more positive emotions and less stress than their counterparts who didn’t.
Couldn’t that just be a result of the participants exercising more? Is walking in nature really that much better than just going for a walk anywhere? Of course it is! Stanford University confirmed this in a study in which they had some participants walk for ninety minutes in a natural setting and other participants walk for ninety minutes in an urban setting. Unsurprisingly, those who got to walk in nature showed decreased activity in an area of the brain associated with depression as compared to their unlucky counterparts who had to walk in the urban setting.
Looking to lose a few pounds? Go backpacking! Hiking is an even more effective weight-loss tool than you probably realize. It’s so effective that there’s actually a program specifically designed to help people lose weight by hiking. It’s called Fatpacking and they take hikers looking to lose weight on one or two week backpacking trips.
According to Backpacker Magazine, a 225 pound male can expect to lose six pounds of fat in a week of backpacking. That’s right, six pounds of fat not six pounds of water. Yes, it’s true that most programs that promise that level of weight loss are just scamming you by forcing your body to shed a bunch of water, but that’s not true with hiking. First of all, in a typical day of backpacking, you can be expected to burn over 5,000 calories!
All that energy has to come from somewhere, and it turns out hiking is uniquely suited to make sure it comes from fat. That’s because hiking is a relatively slower activity, so your body can take it’s time and pull the energy from its fat stores. To give you some numbers, 45% of the energy you use when hiking will come from easy-to-access carbohydrates while 55% will come from fat. In contrast, while you’re running, you’ll use 80% carbs and 20% fat.
We all know how important it is to take care of our heart. A healthy heart is the first step in a long and healthy life, and the first step toward a healthy heart is to walk out the door and go for a hike. According to the American Heart Association, walking, especially for long distances, can have the same cholesterol lowering benefits as running.
Another study had one group of participants go for a hike in the mountains and another group simulate that hike on a treadmill (using a variety of different incline settings). Not only did the group that went for the hike in the mountains report more pleasure and higher energy levels, they were also achieving higher heart rates than their treadmill walking counterparts. This implies that you’re more likely to push yourself, even subconsciously, when you’re out on a real hike.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have even shown that just spending thirty minutes in nature, even if you’re not walking, has noticeable effects on heart health. But we say you might as well walk too and reap all the benefits you can.
Feeling mentally drained or lacking in creativity? Hiking can help with that too. In one study, participants were tested on their creative problem solving ability before and after a four day hiking trip. After the trip they showed a whopping 50% improvement in their creative abilities! But you don’t need to be gone for four days to improve your creativity, another study conducted by Stanford University showed that participants were noticeably more creative while they were walking than while they were sitting.
In addition to maintaining and promoting good health, hiking can also heal. A very exciting study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the effect of long distance hiking on cancer patients. The findings showed that long distance hiking increased the patients’ anti-oxidative capacity which is important in fighting cancer. So in addition to all the other amazing benefits we’ve talked about, hiking might also help to fight cancer, and even for healthy hikers, the increase in anti-oxidative capacity can help fight disease.
It’s no secret that artificial light and the demands of modern life have severely affected our sleep schedules and sleep quality. There’s new evidence that says that spending time in nature can correct these effects at an alarming rate. A study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder monitored participants circadian rhythms (by measuring melatonin levels at different times of the day) and looked at what happened to them after a weekend spent camping.
The results were dramatic. Just one weekend spent in a natural setting with minimal artificial light caused participants melatonin levels to start rising an hour earlier than before. This means their bodies were ready for a good night sleep an hour earlier. Previous research has also shown that six days in nature can effectively reset your circadian rhythm to its natural state. So there’s hope if you’re having trouble sleeping - get outside!
Going for a hike (or a lot of hikes) with someone else, whether it’s a friend or significant other, is a great way to strengthen your relationship. It provides hours of uninterrupted time to talk and talk and talk about whatever enters your mind. You’re in a pleasant environment so all of those conversations will be accented by your mutual happiness. Hiking can provide a variety of challenges and conquering them with someone else is a powerful experience. And finally, because you’re out in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t any distractions to keep you from bonding. Next time you go hiking, invite a friend or loved one.
Hiking is a phenomenal way to manage diabetes because it provides the positive effects of other types of exercise without being too strenuous. Like all exercise, hiking helps manage blood glucose levels by increasing insulin sensitivity for up to 24 hours after you’re done. Hiking has the further advantage of not being too vigorous which means that it is less prone to cause drastic changes in blood glucose levels, something that can be harmful for diabetics. And all of this is in conjunction with the cholesterol lowering effects that help diabetics along with everyone else who loves hiking.
OK so there’s some pretty convincing health reasons to go hiking, right? Hopefully this article will help any friends and family take the plunge and join you on your next trip. Before you go, here's a cool video from First Pilgrim for further inspiration. Enjoy! =ZIP=