How do you feel after you go for a hike or spend time outdoors? Do you have a tendency to feel less stressed, more focused and more relaxed? If so, that is not a coincidence. Or maybe you haven’t tried hiking, yet you are intrigued by what it has to offer.
Hiking offers a variety of benefits, both physical and mental. Some benefits may be immediate (such as reduced blood pressure and stress levels, heightened focus and an increase in immune function), whereas other benefits may develop over time, such as weight loss and a decrease in depression.
Physical Health Benefits
Hiking is cardiovascular in nature, so it can provide great benefit to heart health while also improving blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Hiking helps increase the strength in the leg muscles, builds stability in the core muscles and enhances balance skills. The more technical the terrain is, along with an increase in climbing intensity, the more balance and core strength is required because more muscles are being recruited to manage the steeper terrain. As you climb, the larger muscles in your legs are activated (such as the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves), and on the descent, your glutes and quadriceps are working hard to prevent you from falling forward on the decline. Uneven terrain means many of the smaller stabilizer muscles are being worked, which increases stability and balance overall.
The intensity of a hike can be altered to fit the ability of the person hiking, from a simple hiking path in a neighborhood to a challenging climb up a mountain, which makes hiking accessible to all abilities and across all ages. The hillier the trail is, the harder your heart will work, therefore increasing the potential cardiovascular benefit.
Mental Health Benefits
Research suggests that hiking mountainous areas with altitude differences can increase feelings of valence (pleasure), elation (or happiness) and calmness, and feelings of anxiety and fatigue may decrease immediately after hiking. For example, one study showed a reduction in stress-related responses such as lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in saliva after hiking outdoors.
A study by researchers at Stanford University showed that spending time in nature reduces rumination, or the repetitive thought patterns about negative emotions. This same study demonstrated that spending time in nature may improve mental well-being as well as provide people who live in urban areas the reprieve they need for reducing negative thought patterns. In fact, study participants experienced a decrease in subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) brain activity, which is a part of the brain associated with withdrawal and is linked to rumination for both healthy individuals and those experiencing depression.
Furthermore, being in nature decreases anxiety and includes some benefits such as an increase in cognition and affect, or feelings and emotions Being in nature may also provide the opportunity to be more mindful and present to the moment you’re experiencing, which has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure.
How to Get Started
Clearly, spending time in nature has the power to make us feel better, both physically and mentally, so what can you do to get started? First, start with shorter hikes on more familiar trails that are near you—this will make it easier for you to get started. Stiffer-soled shoes can help support your feet by providing a more stable grip on uneven and potentially slippery terrain (hiking-specific footwear is ideal). A good pair of shoes can also help prevent ankle injuries or falls as you start hiking (and when you may have less leg strength and overall stability). Ideally, these shoes should be well broken-in to reduce the potential for blisters.
Come prepared with ample fluid and a few snacks (even if you don’t think you will be outside for very long) and be sure to wear clothes appropriate for the weather. Dress in layers to help you stay warm in cooler climates, and be sure to wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Have a clear understanding of the route you will take by using a map or an application on your smartphone. Even better, bring a friend along to join you on the hike, which can help make the time more enjoyable and enhance your feelings of connection (which is also important for positive mental health). It is also important to let someone know where you will be hiking in case of an emergency situation. Provide the name and location of the trail and when you expect to return.
Give it a Try
Give hiking a try and see how it feels physically, mentally, and emotionally—if nothing else, it can give you a chance to step away from the screens and technology that characterize daily life and focus more of your energy on nature and your surroundings, which can bring a moment of mindfulness to your day.