We enjoy hiking for a myriad of reasons: fresh mountain air, breathtaking views, the feeling of freedom, the thrill of completing a long hike, and many, many more.
On top of all this, we love it because it’s a really good form of exercise.
Hiking has an incredible effect on both the mind and the body; ask any hiker how they feel after a hike and listen to them describe the best feeling in the world.
But, what exactly hiking does to our well-being is a more complex topic.
In this article, we discuss the effects and benefits of hiking on our health in detail, so if it sounds like something you want to know more about, stay with us till the end.
Grab a (healthy) snack, relax, and let’s get into it!
The Main Benefits of Hiking
The great thing about hiking as exercise is that you don’t have to be extremely athletic or go through excessive training to be ready for the hike and for it to be an effective exercise.
This is because there are no hiking rules that say at which pace you have to go, how many miles you have to walk, and so on. The key is to think of hiking as a really long walk through nature, during which you can go at any pace, any elevation, and for as many miles as you wish.
No matter how challenging a hiking trail is, you will surely reap the benefits from every single hike.
Naturally, the tougher the hike, the more calories you burn.
That being said, if you don’t feel like you’re in the prime of your fitness and endurance, there is one major bonus to hiking that you’ll love: it doesn’t take much to get started.
It’s true - to get going, all you need is determination and an excellent pair of hiking boots.
Compared to other outdoor sports, such as rock climbing or waterskiing, the advantage of hiking is that it doesn’t require any special gear or lessons. It doesn’t take long to learn the ropes, even for absolute beginners.
So, get yourself some proper footwear, get your brain in the right state of mind, choose a trail, and start hiking! Here are the main benefits you will get from each hike:
It’s a great workout for your legs
Hiking will make your legs work hard and feel as strong as ever.
Most hiking trails involve climbing up a steep mountainside. In combination with the decline, this is one of the best workouts you get during hiking.
If you think about it, trekking up a mountain is a lot like doing lunges or climbing the stair-climber. The difference is you do it for hours on end on a different, more unpredictable, and uneven terrain.
You can only imagine the effect this type of physical activity has on your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
The benefits you get from the climb are completed once you go downhill because that is what really strengthens your legs.
Going down a steep hill will make your glutes and quads work overtime.
Be careful though, as you’ll need to make slow and controlled steps to avoid injuries.
A steep or lengthy descent can put a lot of stress on your body, particularly on the knees and hips. One wrong step and you could fall down and seriously hurt yourself.
This is what’s known as eccentric contractions. It’s similar to when you lower a dumbbell in the gym slowly. It can damage the muscle fibers as you resist gravity against the weight - in this case, the weight is your body.
If you feel like you're going down too fast, it's a sign to slow down and go at a more moderate pace.
Don't worry about being slower than the rest of the group; a hike is not a race.
So, take your time and go down slowly; it can save your life.
Plenty of people incorrectly consider the descent the easier part of a mountain hike. Perhaps you won’t gasp for your breath, but your legs won’t get a second of slack.
This is why it's crucial to take breaks and free your legs from this burden. Every now and then, search for a place in the woods or part of the trail where you can rest your body and your mind.
It strengthens your core
The chances are, you’ll likely carry a backpack with necessities on all your hikes.
Navigating challenging terrain while schlepping a bulky pack will activate your lower back, abs, and obliques which makes an excellent workout.
(You have to be careful not to overpack your bag though, especially if you don’t have the necessary core strength to carry it for a long time)
It improves stamina
This is true for any form of exercise, let alone a varied one such as hiking.
When you perform stuff repeatedly, you will get better at doing it. For example, your first 5-mile hike will be way tougher than your 10th one.
Furthermore, let’s take mountain peaking for example - hiking at heights of over 4000 feet helps your body adapt to functioning in a low-oxygen environment.
This will build your endurance over time and each next similar hike will be a lot easier for you to undertake.
Hiking is the ultimate cardio workout
You can get most of the classic health benefits from hiking as you would from typical cardio workouts.
Improves blood pressure? Check.
Lowers the risk of heart disease? Check.
Decreases cholesterol? Check.
Not only will hiking help you build your strength, but it can also help control your weight, which in turn benefits your cardio health (your blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol).
Hiking is the happy pill your brain NEEDS
Are you sick of everyday stress and the toll it takes on your health? Are you in search of an escape from the busy city life into nature? If the answer to those questions was “yes”, then what you need is a good hike!
Trust us - there is nothing better in the world than the feeling you get after completing a trail.
It's not just physical - the effect hiking in nature has on your mental health is incredible. In fact, the benefits hiking has on your body are equal to those it has on your mind.
If you've ever finished a trail, you know what we’re talking about.
It’s that satisfying moment when you set your eyes on an epic view for the first time after a strenuous climb or see a graceful waterfall surrounded by inspiring nature.
This is not just a feeling, it’s a scientific fact. Research shows that people who walk for an hour in nature are less anxious and happier than those who spend the same amount of time walking near traffic and city noise.
Shocking, right? Not really.
Did you know that even looking at pictures related to nature has benefits on our mental health? That’s right, your default desktop wallpaper is good for you; who would’ve thought?
And let’s not forget that exercise produces endorphins (the happy hormones).You can only imagine what a mix of physical exercise and actually being in nature does for your mental health.
As a result, you get a happy mind and a healthy body - what more could you ask for?
So, if you’re in dire need of a mood and happiness boost, hiking could be the solution to all your problems.
It helps your relationships
Hiking can be both a solo and a group physical activity.
Research shows that hiking with a close friend, family member, or partner can also be a great bonding experience.
The reason for this is that exercising and enduring physical and psychological hardships together create a feeling of closeness and safety. Not to mention the memories you create along the way.
This is particularly true if you decide to embark on a long-distance hike or thru-hike.
Completing a thru-hike with a person that’s close to you is an experience of a lifetime.
Is Hiking Good For Weight Loss?
If you want to lose a pound or two (or more) and you’re the type who needs to spend time outdoors, you should seriously consider hiking for weight loss.
Many people hit the gym when they’re trying to shed some pounds, but this can quickly become monotonous and difficult to maintain, especially for outdoorsy folks.
Here’s a reminder that compared to indoor workouts, hiking is an excellent source of both outdoor exercise and fun!
But, is hiking a great way to lose weight?
The answer is YES.
Hiking is what we call a low-intensity workout, meaning every calorie you burn during a hike is mostly from fat.
This fat-burning is precisely what you need for weight loss.
However, the best way to do so is to mix low-intensity and high-intensity workouts.
This is where hiking comes in.
The main reason why hiking is a good weight loss exercise is that it’s never just low-intensity. Certain parts of every hike require extra effort; you have to put into climbing up a hill, maintaining balance, carrying a load on your back, and so on.
It’s super easy to turn a low-intensity hike into a high-intensity workout. You just have to sprinkle in a few heart-pumping, calorie-consuming activities in between lower-intensity intervals to increase your heart rate.
If you’re particularly keen on experiencing weight loss while hiking, here are a few adjustments you can make to each hike that will help you burn fat:
Instead of slowly working your way up, start by running for just a few minutes. This will significantly increase your heart rate and get your blood pumping.
Consequently, you’ll burn more calories in those few minutes you’re running up the hill, and you’ll increase the number of calories your body burns in the next hour or two.
Doing some pushups
You can always take a short break to do some pushups and turn your hike into a full workout while simultaneously amping up the number of calories you burn.
So, stop, drop, and give us 20!
Going downhill slowly
Take your time when going downhill. Remember, we talked about this - the muscles your body uses to descend work hard, so go slowly and let your body burn more calories and fat.
Using trekking poles
Don’t forget to bring a hiking pole and actually use it on your hike. Making use of a pole means your whole body has to work out while you hike, not only your legs. It's a great way to burn more calories on your hikes.
Increase your backpack weight
The heavier the load, the harder it is to carry it (duh).
This means you’ll activate more muscles, so the more you carry, the more energy you expend and the more calories you burn.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should pack unnecessary things just to increase the backpack weight. Instead, pack things related to your hike that you might actually need at some point, like water, dry socks, and a cozy waterproof blanket to keep you warm.
Does Hiking Get You In Shape?
So far we’ve seen that hiking will help with burning calories and weight loss, but yet another benefit is that it will tone your muscles. So, yes, hiking will undoubtedly get your body in shape.
The way it works is that building up muscles and strength increases your metabolism. Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, by building up your muscles during hikes, you’ll burn more fat and calories in the long run.
Don’t get discouraged if you’ve been working hard on the trails but fail to see the scale move.
You probably know that muscle is denser than fat, so there’s a chance you’re shedding pounds and building muscles simultaneously.
What this essentially means is that if you increase muscle mass, it may not lower your weight straight away, but you will burn calories and have less body fat.
Hiking vs. Running - Which Is Better For Weight Loss?
Hiking and running have plenty of things in common - both are great forms of exercise, both require minimum gear and money, and both get you moving outdoors and into nature.
However, the key difference is that running burns calories faster - it burns more calories per hour.
An interesting thing, though, is that while the above is true, hikers tend to burn more calories per hike. This is because they often choose long, arduous trails with increases in elevation and uneven terrain which activates different muscle groups.
Runners, on the other hand, go running regularly, perhaps a few times a week, but their runs often don't require as much strength as they do mettle.
So, in the end, it all depends on how you do it: how long is your hike/run? How much effort each requires? How often do you engage in each activity?
All this affects the final number of calories you burn, but the bottom line is both hiking and running can help you lose weight; it just depends on which you choose and how you do it.
Your preferences are key.
Are you short on time and wish to burn more calories in a shorter time span? Then go with running.
You want to enjoy nature, fresh air, and stunning views? Hiking is the right choice, then.
No matter which of the two you choose, you'll see that the benefits it has on your health are immense.
Is Hiking Good Exercise - Final Words
You don't have to be a hiker to be aware that hiking is an excellent form of exercise.
The benefits of hiking definitely outweigh the drawbacks (if there even are any). Hiking is a great way to build strength, burn calories, improve fitness, reduce stress, become happier, and improve your overall health and quality of life.
For anyone who's considering taking up hikes regularly, our advice is - don't hesitate at all.
Whether you'll do it alone or with a company, once a week, or once a month, go ahead and do it. Hit the trails and experience a new world of great balance, a fitter body, and positive energy!