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It Sure Beats Bonding at the Bar

Working toward a unified goal—like making your way through the woods with others—strengthens relationships and builds bonds."Hiking usually involves solving little problems together ['Uh, did we make a wrong turn?'], which makes you feel more accomplished as a group," says Dustin Portzline, an American Mountain Guide Association–certified rock guide."I always remember the people I hiked with more than anything else." No hiking buddy? No problem. Check for a hiking group in your area at Meetup or sign up for an outing with the REI Outdoor School to go with a pro and plenty of company. (Love working out with someone else? Try this bring-a-friend workout.)

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It's a Happy Pill

Know that mmm...ah! feeling you get when you see a beautiful waterfall or gaze out from atop a mountain? Research shows that such experiences benefit your state of mind: People who spent 50 minutes walking through nature reported less anxiety and more happiness compared with those who walked near traffic, according to a study in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. "We know that just looking at photos of nature reduces stress," says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (See every default desktop background ever.)

Even five minutes in nature can boost your mood and self-esteem, according to a review of studies by the University of Essex in England. And because exercise produces endorphins (known as the happiness hormone), actually moving through nature takes the feel-good benefits to a new level. "Hiking creates a wonderful combination of less stress and more happiness," Whitbourne says. (Bring these snacks along to boost your mood even more!)

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It Gets You Moving Better Around the Clock

A lot of standard exercise—running, walking, lunging, squatting—moves you forward and backward or up and down. Hiking, on the other hand, forces you to move every which way, as you climb over fallen trees and sidestep slippery rocks. "By doing things that require you to move in multiple directions, you strengthen the stabilizing muscles that fire to prevent common injuries," Martin says. Think about it: Most everyday injuries occur when people quickly shift from one plane of motion to another, such as when they reach over to pick up a heavy object and pull a back muscle. If you're not used to moving this way, other muscles will try to compensate for weak stabilizers, resulting in poor form and potentially a pull, a pop, a tear, or a break. (Did you know these 5 exercises are the biggest culprits for workout injuries?)

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It's Killer Cross-Training

Whether you're prepping for a race or you just want to round out your spinning routine, scheduling some hikes can improve your fitness level in ways that up your running and cycling game. "Cyclists tend to have strong quads but underdeveloped hamstrings, and runners tend to have weak hamstrings and glutes," Martin says. "Hiking helps strengthen these muscles to eliminate those types of imbalances."

Plus, if you hike regularly at high altitudes (4,000 feet and up), you'll get used to exercising in a low-oxygen environment, he says, so your body will adapt to using less oxygen, which could lead to improved performance the next time you do a race. When 18 male endurance runners did high-intensity aerobic training in a low-oxygen state (9,842 feet above sea level) twice a week for six weeks, they increased the time it took for them to fatigue by 35 percent, while those who trained at sea level had an increase of just 10 percent, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found. One catch: "A single hike won't have much of an effect; consistency is key," Martin says. Start a hike habit and you might hit that PR. (Double up on your outdoor cross-training by getting your om on outside.)

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Every Step Firms Your Core

Navigating tough terrain also requires your abs, obliques, and lower back to work to keep your body stabilized and upright—even more so if you're carrying a backpack. "A heavier bag—around eight to 10 pounds—makes you more unstable, so your core muscles need to work harder," Martin says. You'll burn calories regardless (anywhere from 400 to 800 an hour, depending on the trail, he says), but your hiking bag can help you hit the high end of that range. (Want a hike-free way to get a shredded core? Try10 crunch-free moves for killer abs.)

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