These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails
Take a Hike
You don't need to go hard-core rugged to net the many benefits of hiking. "Think of hiking as simply taking a longer walk in nature; you can hike at any pace, at any elevation, and for any number of miles, hours, or even days," says Alyson Chun, a senior instructor for the REI Outdoor School, which offers classes and getaways focused on the great outdoors. No matter how tricky (or easy) your trail, every hike has its perks. First, even a moderate one-hour hike can burn around 400 calories, all while strengthening your core and lower body. And as the elevation goes up, so do the benefits of hiking. "The more challenging the hike, the more calories — and stress — you'll melt away," says Chun.
Major bonus: It doesn't take a lot to get started. Unlike other outdoor sports that are gear heavy and often require travel and lessons, such as rock climbing and waterskiing, the barrier to entry-level hiking is low. "You really need only two key items: proper footwear and a day bag, " says Chun. Find a trail near you using the AllTrails App or at Hiking Project, which features GPS and elevation data and user-generated tips for almost 14,000 beginner to advanced trails. (Just remember to download your route from the app to have it on hand for when you lose cell reception, as often happens in the wilderness.)
And if you already do quick jaunts on your neighborhood trails, maybe it's time you experienced the next level of this natural high on a daylong trek. "Long-distance hikes open up a whole new world of terrain and boost your sense of accomplishment," says Chun. Plus, fall is the perfect season to get going: fewer bugs! Gorgeous weather! Pretty leaves! Grab a granola bar (and all other hiking essentials) and set out to tap these powerful benefits of hiking. (And once you're hooked, you can add hiking these picturesque National Parks to your fitness bucket list.)
Your Legs Will Feel Strong AF
Most hikes involve climbing up a big hill or even a mountain, then coming back down, a combo that's a great workout for your legs and one of the biggest benefits of hiking. "Trekking up a mountain is a lot like climbing the stairclimber or doing lunges over and over, which strengthens your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves," says Joel Martin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion at George Mason University.
But traveling downhill is what really leaves your legs sore and strong. "To go downhill, your glutes and quads need to do a lot of slow, controlled work to stabilize your knees and hips so you don't fall," says Martin. "These types of contractions [called eccentric contractions; the same kind your muscles experience when you slowly lower a weight at the gym] damage muscle fibers the most because you're resisting the force of gravity against weight, which in this case is the weight of your body." This means that while you probably won't huff and puff on the descent, your muscles aren't getting a second to slack. (Don't believe us? These hiking celebs are proof that it gets you fit and refreshed.)
Every Step Strengthens 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," says Martin. 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.
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," says Martin. "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," says Martin. Start a habit and you might get those benefits of hiking. (Related: What Is VO2 Max and How Do You Improve Yours?)
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," says Martin.
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. (Related: How to Avoid CrossFit Injuries and Stay On Your Workout Game)
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," says Whitbourne. (Bring these snacks along to boost your mood even more.)
It 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 get this benefit of hiking. (Love working out with someone else? Try this bring-a-friend workout.)
You'll Spend Less Time Worrying
A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that adults who took a 90-minute walk in nature reported ruminating (aka brooding) less than those who had strolled through the city. In addition, they showed less blood flow to the region of the brain associated with rumination, while the city group was unchanged. Researchers hypothesized that nature provided a focus away from negative, self-referential thoughts. As observers look to pinpoint the specific attributes of nature that make it such a “positive distraction,” the good news is that giving this green immersion a test-drive (and getting those benefits of hiking) is as close as your local park path.
It Builds Endurance — Without Leaving You Breathless
Grab your backpack for a day hike, and you can expect to burn some 520 calories per hour (based on a 140-pound woman) — about the same as if you were running a 5 mph pace. But this benefit of hiking won’t seem that sweaty. “Exercising outdoors has been found to be easier in that you feel less fatigue or pain and can go faster and longer than if you were indoors,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., a co-author of Your Brain On Nature. (Related: The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Outdoor Workouts)
Meanwhile, the built-in balance challenges and added resistance of taking on inclines are making your body stronger for other pursuits. “Hiking is a great way to build up your endurance without putting such a hard load on your body,” says Jax Mariash, a pro ultra-runner who hikes as part of her cross-training. “The slow miles also help build your stamina, so when you do long, flat runs, your legs just adapt under you with added speed.”
It Helps Reduce Stress
Need to clear your head? Hiking is the ultimate twofer. Research shows that exercise alone does wonders for your emotional balance, improving mental health and reducing stress. “You get double the benefit when exercising in nature,” says Dr. Selhub. “Walking in the wild has been described as being like putting a drop of morphine in your brain, in which the stress response is turned down along with stress hormones, and feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins increase.”
This benefit of hiking can be attributed to a mix of beneficial effects from the silent chemicals in the air that combat damaging compounds in the body to the awe that most people have in nature. A lower stress response also means less inflammation in the body, Dr. Selhub says, and “we know that inflammation is highly connected to a downward mood.” In short, get a green routine as a check on stress.