Health Benefits of Hiking: Why You Should Lace up Your Boots and Hit the Trail
Whether it’s looking out the office window, eating lunch in the courtyard, or setting out on a weeklong backpacking trip, people find solace in the tranquility found in nature. Regardless of your hiking skill level, from seasoned-pro to never-been-on-a-trail, you’ve probably experienced the joy that comes from spending time in nature.
On a deep level, we know that nature is good for us; being out there can just feel right. For one reason or another, this obstacle or that, many of us fail to take advantage of the many physical and mental benefits of spending time outside. These advantages can compound especially when you combine them physical activity.
There’s also never been a better time to hit the trail. The challenges so many of us have faced over the last few years can put an incredible amount of stress through adversity and change. What better way to counter a long season inside than with wide open spaces and fresh air?
Aside from enjoying beautiful places and escaping daily distractions, hiking is great for both mental and physical health. It can combat some of the major health problems that a lot of us are facing today as a result of increased urbanization, sedentary lifestyles, and an anxiety epidemic.
So, if you’re new to hiking or wondering why you should give it a try, read on for some ways that walking in nature can transform your health for the better.
Improve Your Mental Health
If it seems like anxiety is on the rise, you’ve been paying attention. Unfortunately, the mental health of Americans is getting worse, and it’s an unnerving trend. Mental health was already on the decline before we settled in for a year of isolation. Before the pandemic, 19% of adults experienced mental illness – an increase of 1.5 million people over the previous year’s data. The experience of the global pandemic exacerbated feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
No one factor can take credit for this mental health epidemic, but the rise of technology and social media is a good place to start. Being able to constantly see when you’re missing out can lead to feelings of loneliness. Spending our days surrounded by screens can affect our sleep habits, too. The blue light from phone and computer screens suppresses melatonin (the hormone that signals our bodies that it’s time to sleep) at twice the rate of normal artificial light. Less sleep, or fitful sleep, is frequently tied to anxiety. In addition to the prevalence of technology, more people are living in urban areas. Living in cities – while great in many ways – corresponds to higher levels of mental illness. People who live in urban areas are 20% more likely to experience an anxiety disorder.
From short term (boosting your mood) to long term effects (reducing your risk of dementia), the mental health benefits of hiking are many!. Any one of these health advantages should be enough to convince you to get moving, so here’s a rundown of some of key benefits:
- Hiking disrupts unhealthy thought patterns. A study by Stanford researchers compared the results of 2 groups of participants. One group spent 90 minutes walking in nature, and the other spent 90 minutes walking in an urban setting. The participants who walked in nature reported less “rumination” – a pattern of thought connected to risk of mental illness.
- Hiking alleviates anxiety. When you feel stress, your body produces adrenaline, which triggers a fight or flight response. Hiking is a great way to deal with some adrenaline that can otherwise impact your physical and mental wellbeing.
- Hiking boosts creativity and problem-solving skills. It’s true – when you’re feeling uninspired, a walk in the woods can get those creative juices flowing. The combination of exposure to nature and separation from technology is great for our creative minds. The simple act of putting yourself in a new environment literally forces a change in your perspective.
If that weren’t enough:
- Hiking also lessens “bad” feelings of anger, confusion, depression, and tension
- Hiking boosts your mood
- Hiking eases symptoms of ADHD
- Hiking even helps prevent dementia and improve cognitive functioning
Improve Your Physical Health
Of course, modern lifestyles and urbanization can effect our physical health, too. With modern conveniences, sedentary jobs, and other restrictions, most of us aren’t getting nearly enough physical activity as we should.
Hiking has abundant physical health benefits that disrupt our typical sedentary lifestyles. It doesn’t matter how or where you do it, a mountain, a waterfall, city park, spending time on the trail, like many other cardio exercises, can help you:
- Lower your risk of heart disease
- Improve your blood pressure
- Maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- Build strength in the legs, hips, and glutes
- Strengthen your core
- Improve your balance
- Increase your bone density
- Control your weight
Sure, you could reap these benefits from indoor exercise at the gym, but the health benefits of hiking clearly outshine here. Along with the physical boost you get from being active, hiking allows you to get a double dose – physical activity and time spent in nature. In short, hiking can make you healthier and happier.
By the way, It’s worth mentioning that hiking is fun! Spending time in nature – especially as an escape from busy city life – is refreshing, restorative, and energizing. By now you’re probably lacing up your hiking boots to soak up these myriad benefits.
How to Get Started Hiking
While lots of outdoor activities require expensive gear, travel, and training, hiking is perfect for any level of experience – and you can do it almost anywhere, you just need a good pair of shoes!
To get started, find a nearby trail in a green space or park. If you prefer hike with others (which is always a good idea for safety reasons) then consider finding hiking groups on Meetup.com or Facebook. Choose your mileage and plan your route based on your skill level (don’t choose a ten-mile hike for your first outing)! Make sure you have the basics – sturdy shoes, a water bottle, and comfortable clothes for the conditions. Check the weather, tell a friend where you are going, and head out!
Hit the Trail With a Guide
Hiking can also be an amazing way to maintain healthy habits and see new places while traveling. You can get all those mental and physical health benefits – some of which are tough to get on vacation – and enjoy exploring an unfamiliar landscape.
A great way to stay safe and learn more while hiking in a new place is to sign up for a guided hike. Who needs the stress of navigating unknown territory when you’re trying to relax? Guides help you to learn about your surroundings so you can better appreciate them; their expertise can reveal hidden history and purpose.
If you’re visiting the Asheville area, you’re in for some of the country’s best hiking. With abundant waterfalls, rolling mountains, and lush forests, the southern Appalachians are a hiker’s dream. Check out Asheville Hiking Tours to sign up for a guided hike, and enjoy all the perks of hitting the trail with an expert naturalist in this beautiful corner of the world. Your visit will be sure to convince you of the health benefits humans so often find here. People have been coming to enjoy the tangible and ethereal benefits of Asheville and the surrounding mountains for a very long time.
Natural Notes is Asheville Hiking Tours’ blog about nature, history and travel in the Appalachians. Asheville Hiking Tours offers day hikes, waterfall tours, and firefly tours, guided by naturalists, in the mountains around Asheville, NC. For more info visit www.AshevilleHikingTours.com.