Hiking is good for the soul. Whether it’s walking alongside a bubbling river, feeling the sunshine on your shoulders, or gasping at panoramic viewpoints, hiking can have profound impacts on your mental health. But hiking can have far-reaching effects on physical health, as well—and there’s plenty of science to back that up. Whether you’re looking to build muscle or improve cardiovascular health, hiking can have benefits that go far beyond a sense of accomplishment after a day on the trail.
In the era of social distancing, here’s how a walk in the woods can clear your mind, promote healthy practices, and shed a few pounds. Just be sure you’re keeping a safe distance from other hikers and aren’t touching any common surfaces (like handrails, day-use pay stations, map boards, or restroom surfaces).
Improve Your Mental Health
According to the American Heart Association, spending time outdoors can be good for cardiovascular health, but the AHA also points out the many mental health benefits of getting outside. It can combat depression, reduce stress, curb anxiety, and stem the tide of negative, angst-ridden thoughts. In fact, a 2015 study from Stanford University found that people who walked for 90 minutes in nature exhibited less activity in an area of the brain linked with depression than their city-dwelling counterparts.
Improved mental health can have all kinds of impacts on your physical health: It can translate to better exercise habits, an optimistic approach to working out, and more energy—all of which helps with weight loss.
Feel Less Stressed
Who among us has ever thought we could use more stress in our lives? (That’s what we thought.) Take heart in knowing that hiking can help lower stress—at least after you’ve stopped stressing over how much longer it is to the top. Lower stress levels have dramatic impacts on physical health, as well. Harvard Medical School, for instance, points out that studies have shown the stress-relieving benefits of spending time in green spaces, such as nature preserves and woodlands. And lower stress can cut the risk of heart disease, lead to lower blood pressure, help you sleep better at night, and aid weight loss.
Boost Your Cardiovascular Health
Walking is one of the easiest ways to get off the couch and get active, and being active is one of the most important things for losing weight. Hiking is a nice extension of walking because it can offer great views, natural beauty, lush forests, and sweeping scenery. As if that weren’t enough to get you outdoors, the American Heart Association says that just one hour of brisk walking can increase life expectancy by two hours. Even a moderately easy hike may count as “brisk”, so working out now will do wonders for your heart further down the line.
A 2010 study, published in the Current Opinion in Cardiology journal, backs up the effects of walking on heart health, saying that “Walking has the potential to play a key role in the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”
Build Muscles and Bone Density
Hiking is, by its very nature, a weight-bearing exercise—so it stands to reason that you can improve bone density and build muscle in the process. According to WebMD, hiking helps improve strength in your glutes, quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings—as well as other muscles in your hips and lower legs. And all that newly built muscle will come in handy on the next grueling hill (up and down)—and make it just a bit more bearable.
Improve Your Balance
One of the unexpected benefits of hiking is that it helps improve balance. According to Harvard Medical School, walking builds lower-body strength, which is key to maintaining good balance—especially as you age. Improved balance also gives you a more stable base to help navigate uneven, rocky, or muddy terrain. Once you are more comfortable with different types of terrain, you will be able to get out and experience more trails.
In addition to aiding in weight loss, hiking brings with it a wealth of other benefits from an improved mental state to a healthier heart. So what are you waiting for? Get off the couch and head out on a short hike so you too can enjoy the happiness it brings.
Written by Matt Wastradowski for Matcha in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.