Hiking for Health & Happiness

Written by: Kimberly Matthews, MA, LCPC

There is a strong body of research that demonstrates the positive effects of hiking on the body and the mind. While practicing social distancing, we can benefit from hiking in our local forest preserves and open lands.

According to a seven-year-long study conducted by professors at the University of Essex, outdoor activities such as hiking are more useful than indoor exercising because they contribute to the mood and self-esteem of participants.
Their study participants found the following benefits from hiking:

  • Mental relaxation
  • Stress reduction
  • Decreased mental fatigue
  • Increased mental clarity and sense of well-being
  • Social benefits – the experience provides opportunities for social support, affiliation, intimacy – hiking with a partner may make it enjoyable, less of a chore and more likely that you’ll stick with it
  • Research participants report benefits such as inner peace, trust and even spiritual experiences

We all know that exercising is good for our health.

Some of the benefits of regular aerobic exercise such as hiking:

  • Research has demonstrated a 30 to 50% lower risk of colon and breast cancer associated with regular exercise – may also decrease the risk of lung and endometrial cancer
  • Cancer patients who exercise during and post-treatment may experience less nausea and less fatigue
  • Sunshine produces Vitamin D in our bodies – mounting evidence links low levels of vitamin D to an increased risk of type 1 diabetes, muscle and bone pain, and cancers of the breast, colon, prostate, ovaries, esophagus, and lymphatic system
  • Aerobic exercise brings extra oxygen to muscles and organs which strengthens muscles and lungs thereby increasing alertness and energy level
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness (heart, lungs, blood vessels) by decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol, which in turn decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease such as coronary heart disease and stroke (American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise “most days of the week”)
  • Improved muscular fitness and body tone – hiking exercises almost every part of your body: legs, knees, ankles, arms, hips, butt, abdominals, shoulders and neck
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes and help controlling diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels
  • Hiking is a weight-bearing exercise so it increases bone density and slows loss of density which aids in decreasing osteoporosis
  • Helpful in managing arthritis – Center for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes/week to keep joints flexible – hiking trails are often softer and easier on joints than asphalt or concrete
  • Weight control – hiking burns 370 to 500 calories an hour
  • Reduced depression– hiking elevates your mood through distraction from worries – research demonstrates an increased sense of well-being and happiness
  • Hiking releases adrenaline and endorphins, which can decrease tension and anxiety, and lower blood pressure levels
  • Invigorating activity improves quality sleep, helps you fall asleep faster and provides a more refreshing sleep
  • Research demonstrates that spending time outdoors increases the attention span and creative problem solving skills by as much as 50%

You don’t have to be in perfect shape to start hiking.  Start with easy hikes and work up to steeper hikes that work your legs more.

Minimal recommended “equipment”:  a good pair of shoes, moisture-wicking socks, water, healthy snacks, sunscreen, hat, bug spray, first aid kit particularly if it’s a remote area and/or strenuous hike.  Carrying a backpack can also add to the weight-bearing exercise benefits!

Being in nature connects us with ourselves and nature in a way that is peaceful, calming and increases our sense of well-being. Your mind is focused on beautiful surroundings and may be occupied with tackling a difficult trail. Even just while standing still surrounded by trees and greenery, we can be meditative and relaxed.

Hiking is good for the body, mind and soul!