Hiking Workouts Are Good for the Body and Great for the Mind

There are important differences between a walk around your neighborhood and a hike amid the beauty of nature
By Lindsay Bottoms
Lindsay Bottoms
Lindsay Bottoms
June 20, 2021 Updated: June 20, 2021

Before COVID-19, the popularity of hiking was on a downward slope among both adults and children. But its popularity has climbed during the pandemic, as more people take to the trails. Hiking is a great way to experience nature and offers those who do it several physical and mental health benefits.

Hiking differs in many ways from taking a regular stroll around your neighborhood. Unlike a sidewalk, the terrain on many hiking routes is uneven or rocky. There’s typically also some change in elevation as the trail winds up or down hills. People also tend to wear different footwear—such as hiking boots—which can be heavier than what they’re used to wearing.

These differences in terrain and footwear mean that hiking has a higher energy expenditure—and more calories burned—than walking on flat ground. We also need to use additional muscles to stabilize ourselves on uneven terrain—muscles that are normally unused when walking on flat, even ground.

While brisk walking at a speed of around 3 miles per hour (5 km/h) uses up to four times as much energy as sitting down and resting, hiking through fields and hills uses more than five times that energy. This means you can achieve the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity without going for a run or heading to the gym.

The benefits of getting enough exercise are clear: It improves your physical health, sleep quality, and stress management. It also reduces your chances of developing certain chronic diseases, such as dementia, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and certain cancers. In older adults, some research suggests hiking may be able to improve hypertension.

Hiking is also beneficial for those with pre-existing health conditions. Research shows hiking leads to weight loss and improves cardiovascular health in pre-diabetic adults, likely reducing their risk of getting Type 2 diabetes. It’s also been shown to improve other aspects of health, including muscle strength, balance, and flexibility in older adults with obesity. Even those who suffer from balance issues or joint problems can hike using trekking poles to reduce the load on the legs.

A popular form of hiking called Nordic walking—in which participants use trekking poles to help them along—is also shown to engage the upper body and increase the intensity of their stride. Research shows this form of hiking increases cardiovascular health, weight loss, and muscle strength in people without any pre-existing health conditions, as well as those with chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.

A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classified as “green exercise.” This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that green exercise decreases blood pressure and boosts mental well-being by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can.

This research suggests health care professionals should recommend hiking to patients as a low-cost way of improving health when possible. In the UK, there’s even an initiative being piloted by the National Health Service to assess the health impacts of green prescribing—where patients are being prescribed outdoor activities, such as hiking or gardening—to improve their mental and physical health.

Get Outdoors

Even if you’ve never hiked before, it’s easy to get started. There are plenty of apps you can download on your phone to help you navigate and find routes. These usually work with your GPS and are easy to follow for those who have a poor sense of direction.

You can also try the 1,000 mile challenge if you want to start hiking. This encourages people to walk 1,000 miles in a year. This has helped many people—including my own parents—to be more active, especially during COVID-19.

If you have a young family—or simply want to make hiking more interesting—a more interactive way of getting out into nature is geocaching. This is where you following a GPS route to a location where someone has hidden a box or trinket of some kind. You can also record what you’ve found using an app. Geocaching is a worldwide phenomenon, so it can be done almost anywhere in the world.

Hiking is a great way to get active and improve mental and physical well-being. And with many of us still likely to be vacationing locally this year, it can be a great way to get away from home and explore new sights.

Lindsay Bottoms is a reader in exercise and health physiology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. This article was first published by The Conversation.

Lindsay Bottoms
Lindsay Bottoms