Find your new healthiest habit on the trail! Coming at you from Summit County, CO I have adopted a daily 2 – 4 mile hike, and was inspired to research the physical and mental benefits of hiking! Here I have complied the 16 significant health benefits to inspire your daily hiking habit!
Healthy Back. Non-specific low back pain is complaint that almost 70% of adults experience at some point in their life. Hiking is a great movement to loosen the muscles in a low impact way that will encourage mobility in and around the lumbar spine.
Strong Bones. Hiking is a lower impact activity with the benefit of body weight impact on our bones. We want our bones to have some impact as that is the feedback that sends signals for the osteo-basts and osteo-clasts (our bone cells) to do their job! Hiking adds to the integrity of our bones to prevent osteoporosis and or breaks.
Works Stabilizing Muscles. The joints in our body functions are either mobility or stability; the muscles surrounding these joints in hiking are challenged differently on every step on a hike to keep us stable! Your ankle joint all the the way to your spine are stabilizing when we hike.
Increases Respiratory Endurance. No surprises here! An increase in using all of your large muscles at the same time (primarily your lower limbs in this case) will result in cardiovascular work. Incrementally challenge yourself to longer hikes! Try adding the use of hiking sticks to incorporate the upper body which will also exhibit more of a cardio response.
Help You Avoid a Sedentary Lifestyle! ACSM recommends the following “5 or more days/week of moderate exercise, 3 or more days/week of vigorous exercise, or a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise on a 3 to 5 days a week is recommended”. Make hiking a lifestyle! (ACE, 2016).
Hiking is a Functional Movement. When critically looking at your own exercise habits it is important to see if you are training for activities of daily living. Hiking uses many single-leg movement which is needed for walking, lunging, or climbing stairs. For example: we need the ability to carry a laundry basket up the stairs; hiking is the perfect modality to maintain this activity of daily living! (ACE,2016).
Psychological Benefits. The release of endorphins is a huge positive impact on mental health – a regular 30 minute hike has the ability to lower stress, depression symptoms and increases ones feeling of accomplishment! (Mad Dogg Athletics, 2017).
Concentric and Eccentric Muscle Work. Depending on the trail you are hiking you will work both muscular contractions on the front & backside of your legs. It is the downhill eccentric (or lengthening phase of the muscular work) that is uniquely valuable. Appropriately gaining the muscle memory and strength for the “downhill” climb is needed to avoid excessive soreness after a big hike. Have you ever been extremely sore through the hip flexors after a big hike? It was likely from the down climb. It is appropriate to train both phases of how our muscles move – just make sure you are doing it a sustainable pace! (Black, 2021).
Social Activity. How many activities can you actually do at a moderate pace AND still be able to socialize?! Hiking is truly the perfect outlet; you are not only catching up with a friend but experiencing something new together!
New Adventure. Hiking will motivate you to check out a new outdoor space! Use hiking as a motivation to get moving wherever you are! Even urban areas have featured hikes that locals can direct you too. Hiking can enrich your life no matter where you are.
Decreased Tension. We have all heard of the hormone coritisol or the “stress” hormone. The hormones released in exercise release “good feelings”, and may improve digestion, circulatory and other systems in your body! 30 min of cardio has proven to change our hormone cycle and improve mood; even 15 minute may improve quality! (Mayo Clinic, 2021).
Better Sleep. It is estimated that one third of adults complain of poor quality sleep. A moderate intense cardio session (like a 45 min hike, where you work say a 6 out of 10 on your own scale of effort!) could be a remedy and produce better quality of sleep! When we get outside and exercise it releases a chain reaction of hormonal chemicals that are still in play around bed time that tell our body “time to go to sleep”! (Kline, 2014.)
Increased Cardiac Output Means Increased General Stamina. When we “work” the cardiorespiratory system the heart (which is a muscle) contracts, forcing the left ventricle (the chamber we want to be really strong!) to empty more blood. We are overall increasing the hearts ability to move more blood per minute aka cardiac output the more we hike. Consistent hiking will increase your overall resistance to fatigue – nice!
More Blood Capillaries. This is a general observation that has been made in individuals as a benefit of aerobic exercise; not only does the heart healthy improve but we see the benefits to the vascular system (think of your veins and arteries) as well.
Lowered Risk of Heart Disease. Another benefit of getting the right amount of aerobic exercise in your schedule it is that it lowers blood pressure – a major risk factor that can lead to heart disease. If you have a hard time going to the gym get that 30 minutes of hiking a day (Mad Dogg Athletics 2017)!
Lowered Cholesterol. When we use our “cardio system” regularly it has amazing improvements on our overall total cholesterol serum. The way I like to think about it is the following; after we eat our blood has cholesterol unprocessed moving through it, then at the onset of our hike our bodies “eat” an additional 1/3 of the cholesterol that is in our blood! With regular exercise our cholesterol can be lowered 1/3 just by moving!
I hope this post has you feeling motivated to get outside and get a hike in. Keep that positive energy up and check out some of my favorite exercises for strong hikers here Bodyweight Workout for Hiking: Exercises to Prevent Knee Pain.
Happy hiking – Emily!