33 Lifelong Health and Mental Benefits of Hiking

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Are you wondering if hiking is an activity you’d like to start?

Hiking blends exercise with a variety of other benefits that can help you physically, emotionally, mentally, and even socially. There are different kinds of hiking, but all of them offer numerous benefits once you decide to pick up this activity.

If you’re unsure about how hiking can help you, then here are 33 reasons why you should start.

In this article, we have gathered all the long-term benefits of hiking to help you decide if it’s the best exercise for you or not. We divided them into four sections so you can analyze (and realize) how hiking can help you live a longer, healthier, and happier life.

Let’s get to it!

Physical Benefits of Hiking

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Hiking offers a wide range of benefits, aside from giving you a change of scenery. It can provide you with physical benefits in areas where some other activities fall short. Let’s take a look at the comprehensive physical benefits of hiking.

  1. Improves the function of your cardiovascular system.

As Harvard Medical School reports, hiking is an excellent way to enhance your health in terms of cardiovascular fitness. As a form of high-intensity walking exercise, hiking increases the production of more oxygen all throughout your body, particularly your legs to keep them moving.

The incline that is associated with hiking is part of what helps your cardiovascular health the most—and the greater the incline, the harder your heart will have to work to circulate your blood. The American Heart Association suggests that people engage in 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of vigorous) cardio exercise per week, which breaks down to half an hour each day for 5 days each week.

Studies suggest that this can be broken down even further into intervals as short as 10 minutes and still provide you with heart-related benefits. This means that doing one hour-long hike per weekend will put you well on your way to meeting this goal.

  1. Develops muscle function and muscle tone.

Compared to other forms of walking exercises, hiking is a better way to build and tone your muscles. The more intense your hike is, the more micro-tears it creates for muscle recovery. However, according to an article by Hike Heaven, hiking contributes more to muscle toning than building.

The muscles you will work while hiking include your quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, abdominals, and hip muscles. Your quads are constantly engaged, as they help you propel your body forward as you hike. Your hamstrings work with your quads to move your knees and stabilize your body. Your calves and glutes are both engaged at different levels, depending upon your incline.

They both get a rigorous workout when walking uphill, especially when you’re carrying a heavy backpack. You develop muscle tone in your hip muscles and abs because you are using them to support your lower body to minimize your risk of injury and keep you stable with an upright posture.

What’s interesting is that hiking downhill on your descent is actually what tones your muscles the most. This is when your glutes and quads are constantly working to stabilize your hips and knees. Because your muscles are resisting gravity against the weight of your body, your muscles become toned.

  1. Progresses overall physical stamina and endurance.

Hiking requires high-impact movements. This means that, when you hike, your body develops the strength and endurance it needs to last for longer exercise periods. As soon as you are hiking at an elevation above 4,000 feet, your body has to adapt to using less oxygen.

In fact, studies have shown that those who exercise at high altitudes two times per week for at least six weeks take 35% longer to fatigue than those who exercise at sea level, meaning their stamina and endurance is much higher.

Hiking helps your body learn to function while using less oxygen. The more hills you are able to hike, the more stamina and endurance you will build. Hiking is also a sport that people do for a long period of time without it becoming dull or repetitive, so increasing your endurance while hiking and extending the amount of time you are hiking will not become boring.

  1. Advances your muscle core functions.

Your core muscles include those in your lower chest, abdomen, and upper pelvis. When you hike, these muscles are strengthened along with your major muscles. As you are ascending or descending on your hike, your core muscles help you maintain your posture, and may work even harder if you are carrying a backpack. Strong core muscles will help you avoid developing a back injury while hiking.

You also use your core muscles to stabilize your body and maintain your balance. Because you are often walking on rough terrain when you are hiking, you have to constantly shift your body to compensate for the uneven ground. Your body uses your core muscles when you have that knee-jerk reaction that prevents you from slipping or tripping.

  1. Burns calories and helps you lose weight.

Hiking is a great way to lose weight. Dan Human reports in his CalorieBee article that hiking burns more calories than other types of exercises. A male weighing 210 pounds can burn 567 calories in just an hour of hiking. One thing to consider about hiking if your main goal is weight loss is the terrain—the steeper the grade, the better.

Studies have shown that exercising at a high intensity increases the rate at which you burn calories even after you are finished with your activity. If you hike vigorously for 45 minutes, you can burn an additional 190 calories throughout the day. This is because your metabolism increases after a hike and the additional calorie burn lasts for about 14.2 hours after your hike. It may even continue through your first 3.5 hours of sleeping.

Walking on flat surfaces simply involves moving your legs in a forward direction, and doesn’t require too much exertion of energy. But hiking typically involves walking across uneven surfaces, which increases your body’s output of energy by up to 28%. This is because hiking on uneven terrain alters the way your leg muscles lengthen or shorten, depending on the severity of the incline.

  1. Boosts your energy levels.

This may sound counterintuitive, as when you’re tired you likely don’t feel like getting up and moving to get some exercise. But doing cardio exercise on a regular basis can actually boost your overall energy levels. As a form of aerobic exercise, hiking is an effective way to keep your energy levels high. A 2008 study reveals that aerobic exercises reduce persistent fatigue among young adults that are used to living a sedentary lifestyle.

Doing aerobic activities like hiking provide your muscles with an increased amount of oxygen, which then fuels your organs, cells, and other body tissues. Giving your body an increased amount of oxygen will give you a boost in energy, alertness, and endurance.

  1. Lowers the risk of cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

As mentioned earlier, hiking is good for your heart, as it strengthens your cardiovascular system. Thus, it also helps in combating different heart diseases. But more than that, research shows that it can also prevent type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other illnesses. Surprisingly, experts say that it may even fight the signs and symptoms of colon, breast, lung, and endometrial cancer.

Regular hiking helps prevent or control diabetes by reducing your blood sugar levels. As your muscles are working while you are on a hike, the glucose in your blood is being used for energy. When it comes to cancer, hiking helps decrease your chances of developing some cancers.

For example, exercise can help your body excrete waste more quickly, which can reduce your contact with cancer-producing agents and lower your risk of colon cancer. Also, exercise can lower the amount of estrogen in your body, reducing your risk of developing breast cancer. Hiking may also reduce your risk of developing lung cancer and endometrial cancer.

  1. Regulates your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

When you walk, run, or hike, your muscles consume more glucose (sugar). Hence, your blood sugar levels lower and make the insulin in your body work better. This sudden reduction in blood sugar can be used as a way to regulate your blood glucose daily, and the impact of that can be seen in the long-term effects of diabetes.

As for your cholesterol levels, Harvard Medical School reports that uphill and downhill walking during hikes reduces the bad cholesterol in your body by 10%. By hiking regularly, your body will also increase its levels of HDL, which is known as the “good” cholesterol. HDL eliminates fatty deposits from your blood stream, reducing your risk of developing clogged arteries.

  1. Strengthens your bones, joints, and muscles.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) explains that weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises like hiking help in building strong bones and muscles. Your bones are living tissue, and hiking causes new bone tissue to form, making your bones stronger. This type of physical activity also strengthens your muscles at the same time. Your bones and muscles become stronger together when your muscles tug against your bones while you’re hiking.

When it comes to strengthening bones, hiking can be especially important for children and teenagers, as the greatest gains in bone mass happen just prior to and during puberty. People obtain their peak bone mass in life during their teen years.

  1. Improves your balance and posture.

In another report by Harvard Medical School, strengthening your core can improve your balance and posture. As an impact exercise that focuses on strengthening your core, hiking is a good way to do so. Having improved balance and posture can lower your risk of injury and may help reduce lower back pain. Strong core muscles can also help improve your ability to do daily activities, such as picking up your child, working in the yard, or carrying heavy objects.

In order to strengthen your core and improve your balance and posture, you have to do exercises that require the use of the trunk of your body without any support. Hiking is a great example of such an exercise, as you have to manage varying terrains while adjusting your muscles so you don’t fall.

We now know that hiking is exceptionally good for our physical health. But what kind of influence can it have on our minds? Let’s look at some of the mental benefits of doing this exercise.

Mental Benefits of Hiking

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Any form of exercise can benefit essentially every aspect of your body, but going for a hike can have a huge impact on your mental health, allowing you to turn off your stressful thoughts and think more clearly while connecting with nature.

  1. Boosts brain power and restores cognitive functions.

In addition to your muscles and bones, hiking replenishes your brain cells to boost your cognitive function. Engaging in physical activities such as hiking increases your blood circulation to the brain, which stimulates your cognitive abilities. Moreover, it prevents the early onset of age-related cognitive decline.

Hiking can reduce one’s risk of experiencing cognitive decline because it reduces inflammation, physical stress, and psychological stress, which all have a strong impact on the effects of amyloids. Amyloids, which are aggregates of proteins, have been linked to the development of various neurodegenerative diseases. They form when healthy proteins no longer function in their normal physiological way and instead form deposits in plaque around cells, disrupting the healthy function of your brain, tissues, and organs.

  1. Heightens your sense of focus and awareness.

Have you tried walking meditation? If so, you can incorporate the practice into your hiking experience to help you improve your focus and concentration. When you are hiking, you have to be conscious of your surroundings. By helping you notice the world around you, hiking helps to heighten your awareness, deepen your thought levels, increase your sensory perception, and improve your ability to process the stimuli around you.

Meditation increases your self-awareness and helps you stay in the present moment. Constant thoughts often fill our minds, and the mind tends to always want more. Many people live with an outward focus, therefore neglecting the richness that exists within. To free yourself from the restlessness of the outside world, try to become fully conscious of your mind as you meditate during your hike and enjoy the silence and stillness inside of you.

  1. Improves memory retention and mental ability.

Aerobic exercises like hiking increase the hippocampal volume in older adults, which improves memory retention and performance. This prevents dementia and other cognitive diseases.

Additionally, research shows that this increase in blood flow to the hippocampus helps improve memory even in those who are not in great shape. In fact, it only took three months of exercise for study participants with low levels of fitness to increase blood flow to the hippocampus and improve their scores on memory tests. What’s more, tests on mice reveal new brain cells growing in this same area of the brain after just two weeks of exercise.

  1. Provides mental clarity and reduces brain fogginess.

As previously mentioned, hiking regularizes proper blood flow throughout your organs, and this includes your brain. When there is adequate blood flow circulating in your brain, your mind becomes clearer and less crowded with thoughts. Hiking is an easy and natural type of exercise that can also increase your mental clarity by increasing your breathing and heart rate, which will deliver more oxygen and glucose to your brain.

Also, hiking leads to the release of a chemical that is known to help improve memory called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This chemical is not accessible through food or drugs, as it is only produced in the brain. Long-term benefits of hiking also include the growth of cerebral blood vessels and an increase in the number of neural pathways in your brain.

  1. Releases your inner artistic and creative side.

A good number of studies have already proven how outdoor activities such as hiking nurture and boost creativity. There is just something about our natural environment that allows us to focus more and keep the creative sides of our brains active. One study concluded that our frequent use of technology and the constant noises of an urban environment greatly disrupt our brains and thinking patterns. They can even reduce one’s ability to focus, thereby having a negative impact on creativity.

Everyone can probably agree that the world we live in is noisy, and not just with the ambulances and construction going on outside. There is also with the constant incoming information and stimuli we have to deal with. Getting away from this noise and into nature helps quiet your mind and free up space to come up with new ideas and make connections.

  1. Helps you become more productive all throughout the day.

Since hiking can uplift your mood, it enables you to clear your mind and become more organized. Moreover, it improves your self-esteem and self-confidence, enhancing your sense of well-being. A higher sense of well-being has a significant effect on your productivity.

Hiking can also help boost productivity through alertness. When you go for a hike, you are increasing your blood flow to your brain, which can help increase your awareness and help you be more prepared to tackle your next project. Hiking will also give you the energy you need to be productive.

  1. Prevents rumination and overthinking.

Experts and scholars believe that experiencing nature is a good way to get rid of rumination, overthinking, and negative thoughts. A 2015 study explains that walking and hiking reduces the occurrence of activity in the brain that is linked to acquiring mental illness.

Not only will hiking provide you with mental clarity, it will also help you live in the moment rather than thinking about the past or the future. Walking with the beautiful views of nature significantly decreases your negative, repetitive, obsessive thoughts.

  1. Improves your problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Outdoor activities that connect you with nature significantly increase your problem-solving abilities and critical thinking skills. However, research suggests that this becomes more effective if you unplug yourself from the digital world and decrease your exposure to technology.

When participants in this research were taken on a four-day hiking trip, they had no access to cell phones, computers, or any other kind of electronic device. Each day, they were prompted to complete tasks that required problem solving and critical thinking skills. At the end of the trip, the researchers concluded that these participants had a 50% improvement in their problem solving and critical thinking skills while they were on their hiking trip compared to when they were in their normal environment.

  1. Reduces ADHD symptoms in children and adults.

People suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a difficult time remaining focused. A 2004 study establishes that green, outdoor settings may reduce the symptoms of ADHD in both adults and children. In fact, the study suggests that they could be a potential natural treatment for ADHD, and help increase concentration and impulse control.

Hiking can be a form of meditation, and can help silence racing thoughts. You have little choice but to live in the present moment and focus on your breathing and surroundings. It is also a great way to burn some energy.

  1. Lengthens and improves attention span.

Because hiking combines naturally with meditation, it can improve your attention span by keeping your mind focused on the present moment. Hiking gives you space and a sense of peace, which allows you to have time to free your mind. This greatly helps improve your attention span and overall mental health.

By decluttering your mind, you can open up some space to welcome any new information that comes your way. This means that next time you are in a meeting, you will be able to pay attention to the material at hand instead of having your mind wander to the other things going on in your life.

In addition to benefitting your cognitive function, hiking can also help you maintain your psychological health. This is a natural alternative that many people turn to when they want to avoid medication as much as possible.

Emotional Benefits of Hiking

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If you suffer from a persistent mental condition such as anxiety, depression, or any other emotional issue, trying to cope with life can be draining. Going through your everyday routine of getting out of bed or even just walking to get some exercise can seem daunting, but the important thing to do when you are trying to boost your emotions is to keep going as much as possible. This is where hiking can come in. Here are some ways that hiking can benefit your emotions.

  1. Relieves stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Hiking lowers your stress levels in two ways. First, as a form of exercise, it helps you release more of the hormones that your body needs to feel happy. Second, experts believe that spending time with nature is a natural stress reliever. It keeps your mind and body calm and relaxed.

When you go for a hike, you can also work out any problems that you are facing in life better in your mind because you are escaping from your daily irritants and distractions. Hiking outdoors in nature can work wonders for your mind in a way that is similar to taking a short vacation.

  1. Gets rid of the signs and symptoms of depression.

The World Health Organization reports that almost 300 million people around the globe suffer from depression. In the United States alone, 16.2 million adults experienced a major depressive episode in 2018, and 10.3 million adults experienced episodes that caused severe impairments in the same year. A Stanford University research suggests that the best and cheapest way to fight depression is by experiencing nature.

The researchers had some people walk in a grassy area with trees and greenery, or down a busy road. After an hour and a half, each participant had a brain scan, which showed a distinct difference between the two groups. Those who walked in the grassy area showed decreased neural activity in the area of the brain linked to rumination and negative emotions, while those walking near the road did not have this change in brain activity.

  1. Uplifts your mood and makes you a happier person.

Hiking helps in regulating the production of the stress hormone cortisol. When you’re less stressed and less anxious, you start to gain a more positive outlook on life.

It also increases your body’s production of endorphins, which are natural “feel good” hormones. When your brain releases these chemicals, you feel the pleasure that some anti-depressant drugs aim to recreate.

  1. Gets rid of suicidal thoughts.

A 2012 study explains how physical exercise (particularly mountain hiking) reduces the risk of having suicidal tendencies. The researchers explained that being involved with nature helps people feel more hopeful and confident.

When you see yourself as being part of a world that is much bigger than you are, it can lead to feelings of hope for the future. It can also help remind you that there is so much more of life that is out there to explore.

  1. Motivates you to finish your goal.

Hikers usually plan their hikes beforehand, setting starting points and end goals. You can’t stop your hike while in the middle of your itinerary (unless an accident happens, of course). With this kind of training, your mind becomes used to the idea of achieving any goal you have set.

When you are used to always finishing what you have started, this will carry over into your personal and professional life. Once you stop having unfinished projects in your life, you will feel less stressed and overwhelmed.

  1. Helps you unplug from the digital world.

Hiking gives you a break from all the technological advances in the world. As you know, we are in a digital era, and a little bit of wild exploration can’t hurt.

People often get emotionally invested in social media, comparing their lives to those of their friends who post extravagant pictures. Getting away from comparing your life to the lives of others and just getting out there and living for yourself will improve your overall emotions.

If you aren’t already convinced that hiking will benefit your life in many ways, let’s look at a few more reasons that taking up hiking can improve your well-being.

Other Benefits of Hiking

Here are some final benefits of hiking that make it an appealing sport to take up.

  1. Helps you make new friends and widen your network.

Hiking allows you to meet new people and share memorable experiences with them. If you are a beginner, there are tons of hiking groups out there that are willing to welcome you into their communities.

Plus, one of the great things about hiking with other people is that you will have plenty of opportunities while you are hiking to talk and bond with your new friends.

  1. Fosters good, strong, healthy relationships.

You and your circle of friends might already belong to a hiking group (or you and your friends might already hike together). Because of your similar interests, you likely tend to form a closer bond with each other.

Time spent on the trail together can also uncover some other similarities that you share. As you experience hiking and nature together, you will form memories that can last a lifetime.

  1. Creates a sense of belongingness.

When you’re a part of a group, you feel like you are contributing to something. This gives you a sense of belongingness. Moreover, it impacts your outlook on life by bringing out your purpose in life.

Especially once you feel confident in your hiking abilities and you know what you are doing, you will feel competent while you are hiking, and feel as if you are in your zone, doing what you are meant to be doing.

  1. Develops your self-discipline.

Hiking allows you to control and schedule your workouts—there is no strict training timeline to follow. You can hike in the morning or in the afternoon, during weekends, or for two consecutive days. You’re free to fix your own schedule. However, it is up to you to self-motivate. You must have excellent time management skills to accomplish your hiking goals.

You have to be strict with yourself to maintain your schedule and not fall behind. As you continue to reach your goals, your self-discipline will increase.

  1. Saves you money.

Instead of getting a monthly membership plan at the nearest gym, or enrolling in sports studios in the city, why not enjoy a hiking experience with your friends? Hiking saves you money. The only thing you need to invest in to start is a pair of hiking boots. And once things get serious, you only need a backpack and a few pieces of safety gear.

Then, you just need to replace your shoes as needed, and the rest is free. Enjoy nature at no cost instead of paying a monthly fee to belong to a gym.

  1. Allows you to travel to places.

Wouldn’t it be nice to go to different places, and at the same time stay healthy and fit? Hiking lets you explore the wilderness and everything that you can’t see in the city.

You won’t get very far on a treadmill, but when you are hiking, you get to choose your destination and discover areas that you would not have seen otherwise.

  1. Makes you appreciate the wonders of the world.

Hiking connects you to the world in the greatest way possible. It reminds you of the beauty of life, nature, and the world we’re living in, making you realize how important it is to treasure and protect them.

As you experience nature with all of your senses and allow yourself to enjoy the peace of being on a hike, you will certainly experience a sense of gratitude.

Conclusion

Hiking is an activity you should consider incorporating into your weekly schedule. We hope that these long-term health benefits of hiking that we just discussed can help you finally decide whether you want to try the activity or not.

Have any questions/comments about hiking?

If so, then be sure to let us know your thoughts in the section below.

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