The next time somebody tells you to take a hike, you should take them literally. After all, the benefits of hiking include—but go beyond—getting a good workout and fresh air.
You can think of hiking as an all-encompassing self-care practice. It not only promotes physical fitness and longevity, but also improves mental health—so much so that physicians across the country have actually taken to “prescribing” nature-based activity plans to patients.
So what’s with all the hype behind hiking? Keep reading to find out.
6 Benefits of Hiking
We’ve previously explored the bountiful benefits of walking, both indoors and out. But in particular, hiking offers an additional range of benefits for your mind, body, and overall health.
Whether you prefer mild walks in natural settings or more strenuous hikes in tougher terrain, here are some of the most impressive wins you can anticipate.
1. Hiking Is a Natural Mood-Booster
Stressed, sad, or tired? Maybe a mix of all three?
Hiking in nature is a worthy antidote—even if you can only make time for a short stroll.
A 2018 study investigated 585 participants who walked for 15 minutes, either in a city or nature setting. Impressively, participants in the nature setting reported reduced instances of:
- low mood
- tension + stress
- anger + hostility
In sum, the researchers concluded that walking amidst of Mother Nature is superior to cityscapes for psychological well-being.
2. Hiking Boosts Self-Esteem
Then, according to a 2010 meta analysis of 10 studies, “green exercise” (i.e., hiking in natural environments) not only improves your mood, but also your self-esteem.
The confidence boost was strongest in younger participants, but relatively equal amongst men and women.
After all, once you successfully reach the summit of an uphill climb—or otherwise challenge yourself to a rugged out-and-back trail—a sense of accomplishment often organically results.
3. Hiking Reduces Negative Thought Patterns
Rounding out the mental health benefits of hiking, a 2015 Stanford study found that participants who walked for 90-minute intervals in nature reported lower levels of rumination than those who strolled in urban areas.
Defined as “repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self,” rumination can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues. Further, these participants displayed lower levels of prefrontal cortex activity in the brain, which also signifies positive associations for your mind and mood.
Essentially, if you’re prone to negative self-talk or frequently envision doomsday scenarios on loop, doing a loop through a nearby hiking trail instead could work wonders to promote calm and clarity.
4. Hiking Helps with Weight Management + Endurance
Now, let’s pivot to the benefits of hiking for physical health.
In a 2014 study on overweight women, those who “trekked” (i.e., hiked on paths that also declined) for 90 minutes three times a week over 12 weeks experienced healthy developments when it came to:
- weight management
- body mass index (BMI)
- muscle endurance
Notably, the average age of the participants hovered around 61 years old. Also, they hadn’t engaged in regular exercise for at least six months prior to the study.
With that said, it’s never too late to reap the health benefits of hiking, even if you’re in a mature age group or currently lead a primarily sedentary lifestyle.
5. Hiking Is Good for Your Core
While we see that hiking makes for terrific cardio, it also provides a built-in core workout.
As the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter explains, you’re forced to work on your balance when you walk on uneven terrain. Thus, you engage your core muscles more so than when you do other types of cardio, like walking on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine.
(If you’re like me and “forget” to do dedicated ab workouts, this benefit should be music to your ears.)
6. Hiking Strengthens Relationships
Exercise and human connection are essential components of overall well-being. So naturally, when you pair the two together by hiking with a loved one, you get a two-for-one wellness deal.
One 2017 study investigated mothers and daughters who either walked in an arboretum or a shopping mall for 20 minutes at a time. The pairs in the nature setting benefited from improved interactions with each other, as well as better attention spans.
These findings complement research demonstrating that immersion in natural settings promote prosocial behavior, such as caring, generosity, and overall positivity.
The Bottom Line
All said, the health benefits of hiking run the gamut from stronger mental health and physical fitness to building higher-quality bonds.
As busy as our modern lives can can get, regular sojourns into nature are well worth the time and effort to feel lighter, calmer, and more at peace. Better yet, you can experience these benefits for years to come.