The Top Benefits Of Going On A Hiking Trip, Science Says
There's nothing quite like planning a trip to get out into Mother Nature for a hike. With each step, every muscle from your calves to your heart is challenged. Pair that with the feeling of the trail under your boots and the sounds and scents of the great outdoors, and you have the perfect makings of a workout that provides mental and physical health benefits.
"Whether you're summiting a steep mountain or staying fairly flat, you use strength, stabilization, and cardiovascular endurance during a hike," says Courtney Grasso, a NASM certified personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness in Fort Collins, Colorado. "Working through those physical challenges while experiencing the beauty of the outdoors provide hikers with countless health benefits that range from improved mental wellbeing to better blood pressure and beyond."
To inspire you to pack your bags, hop in the car, and hit the trails, we've dug into the research and uncovered some of the best health benefits of hiking. Here's what Grasso and recent research have to say about each. Read on to learn more, and next, check out The 6 Best Exercises for Strong and Toned Arms in 2022, Trainer Says.
It may ward off depression and sadness
If you're feeling down, hiking may be a great way to lift your spirits, according to a Stanford University study. To come to this finding, researchers divided participants into two groups and assigned each person to a 90-minute walking route. Half the people were assigned a nature walk (which, yes, is technically a hike!), while the others were given an urban setting for their walk.
Compared to their city-walking counterparts, the participants who moved through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination, a pattern of negative thought that can lead to depressive episodes. They also had reduced activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that has heightened activity when you feel sad.
Related: 5 Major Benefits Of Kicking Up Your Cardio, Science Says
It can help combat high blood pressure
Sure, it's less heart-thumping than heavy weight lifting or running, but that doesn't mean it's any less beneficial for your ticker. Going on a hike, even just once a week, can help reduce high blood pressure, a condition that's a major contributing factor to heart disease. To come to this finding, researchers had 24 participants ages 65 years and older complete a hike within a three-hour time period. After 9 months, participants with untreated hypertension had collectively lowered their systolic blood pressure. (As a reminder, systolic BP refers to the "top number" and measures total amount of force exerted by your beating heart against your arterial walls.) Another study found that participants had improvements in their blood pressure numbers after just 30 minutes outside in nature.
While this research isn't examining a ton of data, Grasso says these findings make a lot of sense. "Researchers have known for a while that those who spend time in green spaces tend to have a lower prevalence of high blood pressure," Grasso points out. "Pair that with the fact that regular exercise reduces blood vessel stiffness and helps manage blood pressure levels, and it's clear how hiking can be such a powerful form of movement."
It can help improve your relationships
You already knew hiking can make your muscles stronger, but did you realize it can also help strengthen your connection to your loved ones? By recording and analyzing conversations families had during various forest hiking trips, Norwegian researchers concluded that hiking provides a unique atmosphere for families to cultivate an emotional bond, enhancing their collective mental wellbeing.
Hiking is a great way to strengthen social bonds, too, Grasso notes. "Today, more than ever, there are so many factors that can cause us to feel disconnected from friends and family, whether it be work, social media, stress, or COVID-related isolation. In turn, we don't always feel present in our relationships," Grasso says. "When you're out in nature hiking, you're unplugged from the world, which really allows us to be with each other and communicate uninterrupted by all the demands of life."
Related: Best Healthy Foods To Bring on Hikes, Approved by a Dietitian
It can help boost your bone density
Many of the same benefits you get from walking carry over to hiking, including the positive impacts on bone health. "Hiking is both a cardiovascular and weight-bearing activity," Grasso explains. "Weight-bearing activities put 'stress' on our bones, which increases their density and wards off conditions like osteoporosis. The benefits are two-fold because hiking can also help maintain muscle strength, coordination, and balance, which can help prevent falls and related bone fractures," Grasso adds.
On top of all that, hiking also gives people a unique opportunity to get their daily dose of vitamin D, a nutrient that many Americans are deficient in. "It's sometimes called the 'sunshine vitamin' because our body naturally creates vitamin D when exposed to sunlight," Grasso explains. "This is important because vitamin D helps us absorb calcium, a mineral your body needs to build and maintain strong bones."
It can stave off stress and stress-related health issues
If you're consistent enough, virtually any form of regular exercise, from swimming and weight lifting to hiking, provides a rush of feel-good endorphins and acts as a stress reliever. Eliminating stress not only benefits your mental health, but it can also ward off issues like chronic stress, metabolic disorders (like diabetes and obesity), and immune disorders, according to the American Psychological Association.
Hiking is a particularly great stress-reliever because of the addition of nature's sights, sounds, and smells. A 2020 study, which examined participants after they went hiking, suggests that being immersed in nature allows the brain to "rest and restore," resulting in reduced feelings of stress.