This just in: Hiking provides a ton of health benefits.
I know. I’ll give you a second to process this earth-shattering revelation.
Jokes aside, we all know that hiking offers numerous health benefits.
After all, walking is a beneficial exercise in itself, and when you increase the difficulty level by tackling challenging elevation or terrain, your body and mind have to enjoy even greater benefits.
Not to mention the (potentially) heavy backpack you may end up lugging around, which increases the effort required even more.
But the thing is, people rarely realize just how many health benefits hiking provides.
So, in an effort to encourage the entire world to lace ‘em up and hit the trail more often, we’ll try to illustrate exactly how beneficial hiking is to your health by providing a semi-exhaustive list of the health benefits below.
The Health Benefits of Hiking: 19 Ways Hiking Helps Your Body
It’s likely impossible to list every single one of the health benefits of hiking, but we’re certainly trying to do so (let us know any we missed in the comments).
Just note that – unlike a lot of similar articles published on the subject — we’re not just making a list of assertions. Each of the benefits discussed below is backed by empirical data.
Let’s jump right in.
1. Hiking can help you lose weight.
Burning more calories than you consume is the path to weight loss. It’s simple physics.
Fad diets, trendy workout regimens and cutting-edge weight loss medications all help you accomplish this goal in one way or another (when they work).
Because walking around burns calories, it is obvious that hiking – which typically involves hills and heavy packs — will burn calories too. In fact, it’ll burn significantly more than a simple stroll around the mall will.
But it isn’t enough to simply burn calories. Just being alive burns calories. You need to burn more calories than you consume.
This means figuring out how many calories you’ll burn while hiking.
Unfortunately, nailing down the specifics is a bit complicated. There are myriad variables at play, including:
- Your body weight
- The amount of additional weight you’re carrying
- The length of your hike
- The pace of your hike
- Any supplemental tools you’re using, such as trekking poles
- The grade of the trail
And on and on and on.
Nevertheless, some of the leading authorities in the health and fitness space provide some guidelines:
- According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 125-pound person will burn 170 calories on average while hiking for 30 minutes. Of course, if you’re larger, it takes more energy to move your body around, so people weighing 155 pounds burn 216 calories in the same amount of time, while those weighing 185 pounds burn 252.
- The University of Rochester Medical Center provides a handy calculator you can use to arrive at a weight-specific estimate. According to this calculator, a 125-pound person would burn 360 calories per hour. Crunching the numbers, this estimate turns out to be about 20 more calories per hour than Harvard’s estimate. Just to be thorough, the calculator estimates that a 155-pound person would burn 432 calories per hour, while a 185-pound person would burn 504. Interestingly, both of these figures correspond exactly to Harvard’s estimates.
- Stanford University has published a chart detailing the average number of calories burned per minute while walking. We’ve already explained that hiking is more strenuous than walking, so these figures likely underestimate the number of calories you’d burn while hiking. At any rate, our hypothetical 125-pound person would burn 158 calories per 30 minutes or 315 per hour. Our 155-pound person would burn 195 calories every 30 minutes or 391 per hour, while a 185-pound person would burn 233 or 466 calories for 30 or 60 minutes, respectively. These numbers are a little lower than the numbers for our other resources, but again, Stanford is providing data for walking, rather than hiking.
For round-number purposes, you can just figure that you’ll burn about ½ calorie per minute per pound of body weight. Just note that this assumes you’re walking on relatively flat ground; hiking often involves steep climbs.
Walking uphill clearly burns more calories than walking on flat ground, so hiking should burn even more calories than this guideline predicts.
This seems plainly obvious, but in case you want to hear it from someone with a lab coat and clipboard, Amy Silder with the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Stanford University, has you covered. According to her 2012 study published by the Journal of Biomechanics:
“incline is a strong predictor of metabolic cost“
Here, “metabolic cost” simply means the calories you’re burning.
But figuring out exactly how many more calories the grade you’re tackling provides than flat ground would requires a calculator, a sextant and a graduate degree in some kind of fancy math we can’t even identify. Just scroll through the study linked above if you don’t believe us.
Ultimately, if you really want to figure out how exactly many calories you’re burning during a hike you’ll want to use a fitness tracker.
Check with the Park
You can also check the websites or brochures published by parks.
Some, such as Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia, provide calorie-burning estimates for specific trails, factoring in grade, length and other factors.
All of these facts and figures aside, the simple point remains: Hiking will help you burn calories, which can help you lose weight.
2. Hiking can help manage your diabetes.
Diabetes is often – though certainly not always – associated with being overweight. This makes it a great follow-up to our discussion of the weight loss benefits of hiking.
And unfortunately, just like the growing obesity epidemic, diabetes is also becoming more common – particularly in the U.S. According to the CDC, approximately 37.3 million adults currently suffer from the disease.
Many doctors consider exercise to be an important part of managing diabetes. And exercises like hiking will not only help you lose weight, but they may also help to manage your blood sugar levels.
Now, the exact form of exercise you do doesn’t seem to matter as much as the simple fact that you do exercise.
But as anyone who’s ever rage quit a jog or decided that weights were entirely too heavy to lift repeatedly knows, it is critical that you enjoy the form of exercise you choose. It’s the only realistic way you’ll stick with it.
Well, according to a literature review published in a 2017 issue of Journal of Podiatric Medical Association, hiking seems to be an especially appealing form of exercise – including among those with the diabetes. The reason for this appears simple enough: Unlike many other “tedious” exercise regimens, many people simply enjoy hiking (we certainly understand that emotion).
You’ll still want to speak with your doctor before you start trekking hither and yon, but it turns out that hiking may be an ideal way to help manage your diabetes.
3. Hiking can build your endurance.
Do you get winded carrying groceries up the stairs to the third floor? Will running to catch a bus leave you embarrassingly out of breath? Do intimate activities require more breaks than you’d care to admit?
You need to hit the trail, friend.
Any aerobic activity will help improve your general health, fitness and endurance. But hiking is perhaps the best exercise for increasing your endurance.
As it turns out, there’s a pretty nifty reason it is so good at improving endurance: Hiking is fun.
Unlike swimming laps, running around a track or cycling through a concrete jungle, hiking provides an ever-changing (and awesome) visual backdrop. “Boredom” was actually “a consistently stated obstacle” by participants in a 2021 study about cycling tests, published in PLOS ONE.
There is also some evidence that hiking and other outdoor activities are more appealing to people who aren’t particularly active in the first place, making it a great gateway to better health.
For example, a 2022 study published in Sustainability found that outdoor activities were more appealing to Polish adolescents who participated in low physical activity lifestyles than they were to their high physical activity counterparts.
Hiking is also an easy activity to start despite not being in particularly good shape. You can just increase the distance, grade or your pack weight as your endurance improves.
Even if you can only hike 1 mile before collapsing at the outset, you’ll certainly be able to hike a little farther in no time.
Just find a short trail you like, hike ½ a mile, turn around and go back.
The next day or week, try to go an additional 1/4 mile or so (just remember, when enjoying an out-and-back trail, you’ll actually be hiking twice as far as any increase in distance because you have to go both ways).
Before you know it, you’ll be trekking 2 miles at a time, and then 3 or 4.
Chances are, you’ll enjoy several rapid increases as you improve over time.
Just be sure to increase the intensity and duration of your hikes gradually and always consult with your doctor before beginning a hiking regimen.
4. Hiking improves your heart health.
When you exercise, your heart is forced to work harder to keep blood flowing to your organs and extremities. And because your heart is a muscle, most aerobic activities – including hiking — help strengthen it.
Among other things, strengthening your heart makes it pump more efficiently. This means it can beat slower, thereby reducing your pulse rate and promoting more efficient blood flow through your body.
But it gets even better.
In addition to improving the efficiency of your heart, heart-strengthening exercise can also improve your muscles’ ability to harvest oxygen from the blood, which reduces the amount of blood your heart must pump to your body.
There are also trickle-down effects to consider.
For example, Mayo Clinic explains that aerobic exercise also helps to increase the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in your bloodstream, while simultaneously decreasing the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Simply put, the former is “good” cholesterol, while the latter is “bad” cholesterol.
This means that hiking may help prevent the formation of plaque in your arteries.
But here’s the real kicker: As an aerobic exercise, hiking can also help reduce your chances of suffering a heart attack. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies, including this 2019 review, originally published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
5. Hiking may help reduce your blood pressure.
Sticking with the cardiovascular system for a moment, hiking can not only improve your heart health, but it can also help reduce your blood pressure.
High blood pressure – technically known as hypertension – is a serious health problem that afflicts almost half of all American adults. Sadly, only about one in four of those with the affliction have their blood pressure under control.
This all translates to about 670,000 deaths per year in the United States.
Those with hypertension should certainly work with a medical professional to implement a holistic approach to managing the condition, but exercise will usually be an important part of this equation.
And as you may have guessed by now, hiking is one of the most beneficial forms of exercise for managing hypertension.
Sure, the pick-‘em-up-and-put-‘em-down, calorie-burning, cardiovascular-health-boosting aspects of hiking we discussed in the previous section are certainly helpful.
But it is the places in which hiking takes place that probably confer the biggest benefits.
This was perhaps best demonstrated by a 2015 study, published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The study’s design was pretty simple: The researchers had a group of middle-aged, hypertensive men walk for about 15 minutes in forests or urban areas.
The next day, they’d switch environments.
The researchers then collected a variety of physiological data points and interviewed the subjects.
Not only did the subjects use more words like “comfortable” and “relaxed” after walking in the forest, but they also exhibited reduced heart rates and increased parasympathetic nerve activity – something that helps to reduce blood pressure.
This all means that while walking around a track will help improve your heart health, hiking in a greenspace will provide even greater benefits to your overall cardiovascular system.
6. Hiking can help improve your lung health.
Your lungs and heart work together to supply oxygen to your body – that’s why it is sometimes called the cardiopulmonary system. So, it makes sense to talk about the way hiking improves lung health after covering some of the ways it benefits your heart.
But instead of talking about the ways hiking improves your lung health, it’s better to think of things in the reverse: Hiking requires good lung health.
Make no mistake: Hiking will certainly increase your lung capacity – regular strenuous physical activity of any kind probably does.
We probably needn’t actually back that contention with science, but as explained by Hancox and Rasmussen in a 2018 issue of European Respiratory Journal:
“Aerobic fitness was positively associated with forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) in cross-sectional analyses at all ages in both cohorts, independently of height, weight, sex, asthma and smoking.”
So, if you continually increase the duration or intensity of hikes, it should increase your lung volume and the amount of oxygen your body can use (here’s another study – this time published in BMC Pulmonary Medicine – in case you’d like to review further evidence).
But this is all pretty obvious. Exercise improves lung health.
The more interesting thing happens when you Google something like “hiking lung function.” You get scads of articles explaining how to increase your lung function in order to hike better or longer or faster.
In other words, people don’t seem to hike to increase their lung capacity; they try to increase their lung capacity to hike.
There’s one other nifty thing to consider: Hiking at high altitudes may provide even greater benefit. Multiple studies have determined that athletes who train at high altitudes enjoy an increased VO2max (as well as other improved fitness metrics).
Now, we’re not talking about hiking at 1,000 feet or so, we’re talking about hiking at significant altitude. You’ll need to be hiking at elevations higher than the city of Denver to achieve these benefits.
But for some, that’s not out of the question. And whether you’re hiking along the Pacific Coast or high in the Andes, you’ll enjoy lung-health benefits.
7. Hiking improves your balance and stability.
Balance and stability are underappreciated abilities. And yes, balance and stability are different things.
In a nutshell, balance simply refers to the ability to stay upright with your body over your center of gravity. By contrast, stability is the ability to retain this balance despite outside forces making it more difficult to do so.
Gloveworx Boxing Studio shares a great metaphor about the differences between balance and stability on their site.
Paraphrased for brevity, they explain that someone who can stand on one leg has good balance, but someone who can do so while standing on top of a ball has good stability too.
Shifting back to hiking, balance would refer to the ability to remain upright while wearing a heavy pack, but stability would be the ability to avoid falling while negotiating a sloped trail or while crossing a stream by walking on rocks.
In any event, hiking regularly will allow you to increase both over time.
But how, exactly, does better balance and stability improve your health?
Well, for starters, better balance and stability will help prevent you from falling and suffering injuries during daily life.
Falls may not sound like a significant health problem, but they are – especially among the elderly. The CDC reports that more than 300,000 individuals are hospitalized for a broken hip (95% of which are caused by falls) each year.
Add in the litany of other injuries caused by falls and it becomes obvious that just about anything you can do to prevent falls is worth doing – especially if it is as simple (and enjoyable) as going on more frequent hikes.
But aside from improving balance and stability from the standpoint of skill, hiking will help increase the strength of your hips, core and leg-stabilizing muscles, further improving your ability to retain your balance.
8. Hiking helps you connect with other humans.
Let’s be clear: There is no shame in solo hiking. Many hikers prefer enjoying trail time alone – the hobby often seems especially attractive to introverts.
But others enjoy hiking with a partner or small group of friends. And those who do hit the trail with a posse will likely enjoy even more health benefits than solo hikers will, as hiking helps fortify social bonds with others. From the trail-side chit chat you’ll enjoy to the encouragement you’ll offer each other while walking up steep hills, hiking is practically made for strengthening your relationship with others.
And these strong interpersonal connections translate – rather directly – to better health.
This isn’t just some nebulous, touchy-feely claim, either.
Scientists have discovered myriad ways in which spending quality time with other humans can help improve your health.
For a big-picture view, just consider this 2010 meta-analysis published in PLOS Medicine.
It found that having strong social relationships provided a 50% increase in the likelihood of survival during the study and follow-up period.
That’s pretty cut and dry, not to mention profound — good social relations help you stay alive.
But strong social bonds don’t just help you avoid long-term diseases. They also help you avoid annoying things, such as run-of-the-mill viral infections.
This was first demonstrated way back in 1997, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The researchers found that those with more types of social ties were less likely to suffer from the common cold (they also cleared the virus more effectively).
Obviously, you needn’t go hiking to enjoy all of these health benefits. You could just as easily join a bird-watching group, book club, or volunteer group. But the point remains: Hiking with friends can help keep you healthier.
9. Hiking helps your body to produce Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is an important vitamin that plays a role in a variety of bodily processes.
Most notably, Vitamin D helps your body to absorb enough calcium from your diet. And it does this quite a bit, according to Harvard Health Publishing:
Without enough vitamin D, the body can only absorb 10% to 15% of dietary calcium, but 30% to 40% absorption is the rule when vitamin reserves are normal.
Fail to absorb enough calcium and your body will struggle to build and maintain proper bone density. This can lead to fractures and all of the subsequent complications they cause.
Researchers also know that Vitamin D receptors are present in many other body structures, including the heart, prostate, and muscles.
It isn’t yet entirely clear how all of these Vitamin D receptors interact with the rest of the body, but it seems likely that maintaining healthy Vitamin D levels is far more important than just for bone health.
So, here’s the thing (and we’re getting back to hiking):
Humans can get Vitamin D in two basic ways: Consuming it (either via food or supplements) or through sun exposure. It’s really the UVB component of sunlight that you need to produce (the usable form of) Vitamin D. But you get plenty of UVB exposure by just hanging out in the sunshine (unless you’re at a latitude exceeding 37 degrees – south of Melbourne or north of Las Vegas, give or take).
However, there are some issues here.
For starters, many of us like hiking in forests, where the sunlight is filtered by the tree canopy above. Additionally, it’s not always possible to hike in sunny weather (for that matter, many of us enjoy hiking in the rain).
Point being, you won’t necessarily generate a ton of Vitamin D during each hike.
And then there’s the whole sunlight-causing-skin-cancer issue to contend with. By and large, doctors will tell you to cover up when exposing yourself to sunlight, either by wearing clothing or applying sunscreen.
So, as with so many other things in life, there’s some nuance here. Hiking will help most of us produce plenty of Vitamin D (assuming you hit the trail frequently enough).
But you may have to pick and choose the time and place in which you hike to enjoy the greatest benefits. You should also discuss the relative risks and rewards of sunshine with your doctor before you go trekking across a sun-bathed savannah in June.
10. Hiking can increase bone density.
Many of us take bone health for granted. Even those among us who try to regularly exercise our muscles and cardiovascular systems rarely think about the importance of maintaining strong bones. And that’s unfortunate, as bone health is critical for living a long, healthy life.
We tend to think of bones as “dead” tissue. Just some rocks that our muscles and tendons attach to.
But bones are living tissue.
In fact, your body is constantly breaking down old bone cells and replacing them with new cells. However, the rate of bone cell destruction can exceed the rate of new construction – something doctors call osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis causes the inside of your bones to have a “honeycomb” appearance. Because there is less material present than there should be, your bones become weak.
There aren’t many symptoms that your bones are becoming weaker. According to the National Institute on Aging, people rarely know that they’re suffering from osteoporosis until they suffer an unexpected fracture. And these fractures often happen to very important bones – such as the vertebrae or hip.
Fortunately, you can help prevent this from happening. And this brings us back to hiking.
Along with eating well and maintaining a generally healthy lifestyle, weight-bearing exercise can actually help strengthen your bones.
According to The Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute, weight-bearing exercise causes your muscles and tendons to apply tension to your bones. This, in turn, stimulates your bones to produce more new, healthy bone tissue. If you hike with a pack, the results are even greater.
Just be sure that your doctor gives you the greenlight before you start hiking – especially if you’re of advanced age or have any of the risk factors for developing osteoporosis.
And don’t think this is just a consideration for old folks, young whippersnappers. As explained in a 2016 study conducted by Mohamed S Zulfarina and colleagues, one of the most important factors in preventing osteoporosis is developing a high peak bone mass. And by engaging in regular activity, adolescents can increase their peak bone mass.
11. Hiking can be a good exercise for those with arthritis.
It’s important for those with arthritis to find some type of exercise. Arthritis – particularly rheumatoid arthritis – is typically accompanied by a litany of comorbidities, ranging from poor cardiovascular health to loss of strength to reduced muscle mass.
But a well-crafted exercise plan can help stave off many of these issues. And your doctor may agree that hiking is a great component of such a plan.
Admittedly, hiking doesn’t sound like a great approach to managing arthritis. Even those among us who don’t suffer from arthritis likely feel some aches and pains in the ‘ol joints after a long hike.
To be sure, when compared to cycling or swimming, hiking is clearly a high-impact exercise. But impact level occurs on a spectrum, and hiking involves much less impact than some other sports and activities, such as running.
In fact, according to Matthew Kampert, DO, MS in an article by the Cleveland Clinic, running causes your body to suffer forces that are eight times greater than your weight. Walking, by contrast, only causes you to experience a force that’s three times your body weight.
So, while hiking may not be perfect for arthritis sufferers, it is clearly a better option than something like running.
Further, movement and exercise can also help alleviate the morning pain and stiffness that often accompanies arthritis, as is outlined in this study, published in a 2011 issue of Journal of Aging Research. In fact, walking is identified as one of the exercises the authors recommend in the study.
Just be sure that you discuss your plans with your doctor before you start or significantly change the nature of your hiking or exercise.
12. Hiking gets you off your butt.
Over the last decade or two, many of us have transitioned from physically demanding jobs that entailed many hours of walking and standing to those that have us sitting in a chair, staring at a screen all day. And aside from the mental toll this takes, we’ve learned that sitting this much is actually dangerous in itself.
In fact, recent research has demonstrated exactly how dangerous sitting for long periods of time is.
- A 2016 analysis published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that sitting was responsible 3.8% of all deaths globally.
- A 2015 meta-analysis and systemic review published in Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes and an increase in incidences of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and all-cause mortality.
- A 2012 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism focused on weight gain (which has a number of trickle-down effects on health). The researchers involved in this study found that because there’s rarely a decrease in the number of calories consumed when people switch to a sedentary lifestyle, weight gain commonly occurs in both men and women.
But if you start hiking regularly (or increase the amount of hiking you enjoy), you will not only start off-setting some of these risks, but you’ll automatically find yourself sitting down less often (or for reduced amounts of time).
So, stand up, go get your boots and hit the closest trail.
13. Hiking can improve your quality of sleep.
It’s no secret that many of us struggle to get a good night’s rest. Some suffer from poor sleep due to medical or mental health concerns, but for others, the problem comes down to lifestyle factors.
And fortunately, many of these are easy to address.
You can start with low-hanging fruit, such as making sure your bedroom is dark, avoiding caffeine at night, and turning off your screens earlier. But you already know these things.
There is, however, at least one other lifestyle change that can help improve the amount and quality of sleep you enjoy. But unlike your 10:30 PM doom-scrolling habit, we may actually be able to convince you to make this change: You can
get more exercise go hiking.
Of course, there are myriad ways to get exercise – hiking isn’t the only game in town. But trail trekking is easily one of the best exercises for promoting better sleep.
We’re not just causally asserting that hiking is uniquely helpful for those in pursuit of more or better sleep, either. We brought receipts:
- Hiking will often expose you to bright light during the day, which can help make it easier to fall asleep at night, according to a 1993 study, published in Journal of the American Geriatric Society. You needn’t be out on the trail all day to enjoy this benefit, either. A 2003 study found that 2 hours of daylight exposure could help improve sleep efficiency by 80%.
- Hiking serves as both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which is good, because there’s mixed evidence regarding which type of exercise is best for improving sleep. According to preliminary findings reported at a 2022 conference for the journal Circulation, aerobic-only exercise regimens increased the duration of sleep by 17 minutes relative to participants employing resistance (anerobic) exercise, an aerobic-resistance combination regimen, or no exercise program at all. However, the same study also found that sleep efficiency improved more in the combination and resistance groups. Yet another study entirely – this one published in a 2022 issue of Sleep Science – determined that all forms of exercise helped, but resistance training provided better improvement in terms of sleep efficiency, sleep onset latency and sleep duration. More research is clearly necessary, but in the meantime, lean towards lightweight, high-speed hiking if you want to stay at the aerobic end of the spectrum, or trek slowly up steep hills with a heavy pack if you want to stick to the resistance end of the spectrum.
- Forest bathing and hiking aren’t exactly the same thing, but there’s plenty of overlap. And we’re starting to learn that forest bathing is a pretty darn healthy activity. In terms of sleep, a 2022 study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine found that middle aged men who enrolled in a forest bathing program exhibited less fatigue, and they felt less sleepy and more refreshed upon waking.
And don’t forget that the mental health benefits of hiking (which are discussed elsewhere in this article) will also make it easier for you to get a good night’s sleep. It’s easier to drift off if you’re feeling good mentally and emotionally.
14. Hiking can reduce stress.
Just about anything you enjoy doing has the potential to lower your stress level, but hiking is particularly well-suited for helping you relax.
But how do you quantify stress and relaxation?
There are a few ways, but one of the most common metrics used to quantify stress is cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a few different biological roles in the body, but its release is primarily triggered by stress. So, scientists will measure salivary or urinary cortisol levels – typically before and after a given experiment – to assess how the participants’ stress level changed.
There are quite a few studies that have examined cortisol levels following hiking or other activities taking place in natural areas. The clearest, however, simply looked at cortisol levels following Shinrin-yoku – otherwise known as forest bathing.
Publishing their results in a 2010 issue of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, the researchers clearly demonstrated that forest bathing reduced cortisol levels. It also improved other physical measures, such as blood pressure and pulse rate.
It is important to note that one team of researchers argues in a meta-analysis that research into cortisol levels hasn’t consistently demonstrated a strong difference between natural areas and other environments.
But their findings seem to be at odds with most of the research we found (and the researchers still found that other types of evidence, such as self-reported emotions, did demonstrate quite a difference between natural and non-natural environments).
Note that you needn’t seek out particularly remote trails, which are miles from civilization. A 2018 study published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that you can still enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of hiking in areas that have plenty of manmade “stuff,” including buildings and cars.
As part of their experiments, the researchers measured salivary cortisol levels in two groups of hikers. Though both groups hiked through natural areas, one group hiked in places with lots of “anthropogenic elements” (manmade stuff) and another hiked through an area with very few anthropogenic elements.
Both groups showed a very significant drop in cortisol levels following the hike, indicating that the participants were less stressed than they were beforehand. This wasn’t surprising, but what was interesting was that both groups showed relatively similar levels of stress reduction.
So, don’t feel like the odd bathroom, visitor center, or parking lot you encounter during a hike will reduce the stress-relieving gains you’ve made.
15. Hiking can reduce your risk of suffering depression.
At face value, it seems obvious that hiking may help to lift your mood and stave off depression. Many of us have experienced this subjectively. We head out into the forest feeling depressed, only to find ourselves in better spirits somewhere along the journey.
But researchers with Stanford University actually pinned down at least one reason that hiking can reduce your risk of depression. And notably, this is one of the areas in which hiking differs relatively significantly from walking or engaging in most other types of exercise.
The exercise component of hiking doesn’t seem like the crucial component of reducing your risk of depression (though it certainly doesn’t hurt – exercise itself does offer a protective effect against depression). Instead, it is the exposure to natural areas and greenspaces that appears to help.
Publishing their results in a 2015 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the researchers found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area had reduced activity in part of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex – an area which is thought to be involved in the development of depression – relative to people who spent the same amount of time walking in an urban area.
The nature-walkers in the study also exhibited less rumination – something the researchers characterize as a:
“maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.”
So, while there’s still plenty of reason to go for a bike ride in the city, jog around the block, or crank out laps at your local pool, we now know that hiking provides additional benefits, which may help prevent you from becoming depressed.
16. Hiking can help reduce anxiety.
As anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety knows, the constant fight-or-flight state that anxiety causes often triggers depression. And because anxiety and depression are so commonly linked, it makes sense that we’re discussing them in back-to-back fashion.
And fortunately, hiking can help reduce anxiety too. There’s no shortage of science on this front, either.
The Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research published a study in 2012 that found walking in a forest was better for reducing anxiety and improving happiness than walking in a gymnasium was. This hardly seems surprising, but there were a few nifty things that came out of the same study.
For example, the researchers found that “meditative” walking (as opposed to “athletic” walking) in a forest improved happiness scores the most, so you may want to consider slowing down and smelling the roses during your next hike.
It’s important to note that you needn’t necessarily travel hours to your nearest national park to reduce your anxiety, either. A 2020 study published in the journal Forests found that even urban areas that contain greenery help to improve mental health.
But perhaps the greatest benefit hiking provides anxiety sufferers relates to something called “trait anxiety.”
“Trait anxiety” is best understood by comparing it to “state anxiety.”
The former occurs in those who suffer anxiety or worry about things irrespective of the situation, while the latter occurs for everyone at one time or another and is directly related to the activity or situation.
For example, anyone may feel anxiety in a stressful situation such as driving in heavy traffic. But in those experiencing state anxiety, the worries will fade away after traffic eases. For those suffering from trait anxiety, the worries and fears will likely linger.
As explained by clinical psychologist Greg Nawalanic, PsyD in an interview with Psycom.net:
“You can see trait anxiety as more readily classifying things as worries and fears.”
“a significant correlation between psychological responses to walking through forests and trait anxiety levels.”
They go on to say that:
“those participants with high trait anxiety levels tended to have a more effective reduction in the feeling of “depression-dejection” after walking through forest areas than participants with normal and low trait anxiety levels”
In other words, those with high trait anxiety enjoyed more mental health benefits (especially as it relates to feelings of depression and dejection) from walking in the forest than those with low or moderate train anxiety.
17. Hiking can help improve your self-esteem.
Feeling good about yourself is an important – if often ignored – component of your overall health. Having a high self-esteem is not only associated with things like personal achievement, but it’s also important for your physical health, as a 2022 review published in American Psychologist found.
But the question is: Does hiking and spending time in natural environments help boost self-esteem?
On the one hand, you don’t even need science to know this intuitively – it’s obvious that the gradual progress you’ll make while hiking increasingly lengthy and difficult trails will help you feel better about yourself.
But exercise clearly helps boost self-esteem, as a 2016 study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment demonstrated. Hiking is certainly a good form of exercise, so picking them up and putting them down will help boost your self-esteem.
Note that it’s not just the fact that hiking is exercise that makes it so effective for boosting self-esteem — it’s also the fact that it takes place outdoors.
For example, this 2019 systemic review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that “green exercise” boosted self-esteem more effectively than other types of exercise.
Similarly, the authors of the 2007 publication Got the Blues, then find some Greenspace found that exercising outdoors in a natural environment was a lot more effective at boosting self-esteem than exercising an equivalent amount in an indoor setting.
18. Hiking can improve your memory.
Hiking, it turns out, may make your brain bigger. Well, part of your brain at least.
The brain is a complicated doodad, and the storage of memories is complicated in itself. But the hippocampus is one of the big players in the making-and-storing-memories game.
As it turns out, it may be possible to increase the size of your hippocampus (which should ostensibly improve your memory).
Researchers documented as much in a 2011 study published in PNAS.
The researchers found that exercise increased hippocampal volume by 1% to 2%.
That’s essentially equivalent to the volume decrease that occurs each year in elderly people.
Another study – this one published in a 2021 issue of NeuroImage – compared the effects on brain composition and memory from two types of exercise: dance and walking.
Guess which one worked (surprisingly) better?
That’s right – the study group who walked showed better memory improvements than the dancers. They also showed greater white matter gains in the brain during the study.
Best of all, the specific type of walking in both of these studies was pretty boring; both studies involved participants walking on a treadmill or around a track.
This is important because hiking involves a ton of changing scenery, and it forces you to navigate complex environments (even if you’re walking on a well-marked trail, the trail is still a very complex environment, with constantly changing sensory input). These factors hint that hiking may be even better at improving your memory than simply walking.
19. Hiking can improve your immune function.
We’ve saved what is perhaps the most important health benefit of hiking for last. It relates to the way hiking – more specifically, the time spent in forests – helps improve the way your immune system functions.
And the cool thing is that it does so in multiple ways.
Just check out the science:
A 2012 study published in Biomedical and Environmental Sciences showed that people exposed to a forest environment demonstrated that:
decreased malondialdehyde, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor a levels compared with the urban group
Malondialdehyde is thought to be a marker of increased oxidative stress, while high levels of both interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor can indicate inflammation.
Another study – this time published in a 2007 issue of International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology – demonstrated that brief forest walks helped to increase NK activity.
What does that mean? What are NK cells?
This 2008 study from Nature Immunology puts it best:
“Natural killer (NK) cells are effector lymphocytes of the innate immune system that control several types of tumors and microbial infections by limiting their spread and subsequent tissue damage.”
Pretty important little cells floating around in your body, no?
So, even if you aren’t interested in improving your lung capacity, staving off some of the effects of arthritis, or reducing your stress level, we’re guessing that you will be interested in increasing the cancer-fighting cell activity going on inside your body.
Are There Health Risks for Hiking?
Few things in the world are entirely awesome or completely terrible, so it makes sense to wonder if hiking poses any health risks – especially given the considerable number of health benefits it provides.
Ultimately, the answer is yes. Hiking does present a few health risks.
However, the benefits will clearly outweigh the risks for most people.
While not exhaustive, the following list gives a fair assessment of the risks hiking may present.
I have led more than 10,000 miles of hikes over the years, and there are two things that always worry me most:
- I worried that I would lose a child on the trail. Fortunately, this only happened once (and the kiddo was quickly located safe and sound – more on this some other time). The crazy thing is that I already knew about the risks of this happening and took great strides to prevent it. But what can I say? Kids do unpredictable things. Nevertheless, I learned from it.
- I was also worried that one of my students would simply trip and fall. Perhaps counterintuitively, I was more worried about this happening to adults or seniors – kids tend to weather falls better and bounce back up, whereas adults can suffer more serious injuries. I remain convinced that this is the most important health risk to anyone heading out on a trail. The average tumble will likely only result in a skinned knee and bruised ego, but you could easily fall on a stick and impale yourself or break an ankle.
The first risk doesn’t really apply to most readers; I’m assuming you’ll keep good track of your own kiddo. But everyone is vulnerable to the second.
It isn’t especially easy to acquire empirical data regarding accidents that occur while hiking (the vast majority of minor accidents undoubtedly go unreported – who did you call the last time you twisted an ankle on the trail?). However, the Wilderness Risk Managers Committee and Association for Experiential Education has sponsored a report with fairly instructive info.
Most of the information provided in the report is of the unsurprising variety, but there’s one nifty tidbit which helps to illustrate the risk falls present: During the period between 1998 and 2007, slips or falls were responsible for 24% of 416 reportable injuries (or incidences, as they’re called in the data).
So, watch where you step while you’re on the trail, and wear proper footwear. You’ll be glad you did.
High-Impact or Repetitive Use Injuries
There’s just no getting around it: Hiking involves a lot of picking them up and putting them down. Over time, this can take a toll on your body. Ankles, knees and backs are likely the most common body parts to suffer these types of injuries, and they’re most likely to afflict those who already have trouble with these areas.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to reduce the wear and tear your body will suffer while hiking:
- You can wear high-quality hiking boots. High-quality hiking boots can help alleviate a ton of stress on your body. You’ll be best served by looking into some of the very best hiking boots on the market, but you needn’t spend a fortune – Amazon has several high-rated pairs that are quite affordable.
- You can work on perfecting your walking technique. It sounds ridiculous, but there are ways to walk that’ll help you go further without tiring and reduce the wear and tear on your joints. Best of all, while you may feel kinda goofy the first few hikes you try employing proper technique, it’ll quickly become second nature.
- You consider using some trekking poles. Trekking poles are great for taking some of the strain off your legs. They certainly aren’t for everyone (personally, I like having my hands free to hold my camera or swing by my sides), but some hikers find them invaluable.
- You can stick to trails with relatively forgiving substrates. Avoid rocky trails and stick to those covered in soft mulch or grass if you’re trying to reduce the impact on your legs and feet. Riparian (streamside) trails can also be tough on your body, thanks to the tons of gravel that are normally present.
- You can reduce your pack weight. There are scads of ways to reduce your pack weight, which will in turn take some of the stress off your legs, back and feet. And if you’re not hiking very far or in particularly remote locations, you may even be able to skip the pack altogether – just use a hydration bag or carry a waist-mounted water bottle and leave most of your other stuff at home (you can find first-aid kits that’ll fit in a big pocket or clip to your belt loops).
- You can reduce your body weight. Undoubtedly the most challenging method for reducing the wear and tear on your body, losing weight will also provide the greatest benefit. It’ll also help reduce the impact you feel just walking through daily life. But if you’re trying to lose weight in order to hike more comfortably, try to stick to low-impact activities, such as swimming or using an elliptical.
Problems Arising from Existing Health Issues
Obviously, some existing health issues may present risks to hikers – especially new hikers, who’re just taking up the sport. This illustrates the importance of talking things over with your physician before you lace ‘em up and hit the trail.
There are myriad health concerns that may be exacerbated by hiking, but a few examples would include:
- Poor heart health
- Asthma or other breathing difficulties
- Existing joint problems
- Allergies to biting or stinging insects
For that matter, even simple things like pollen allergies may flare up pretty badly after you start hiking. Allergies aren’t likely to leave you hobbled up in bed, but they may make you miserable for a few days following a trek.
We think that hiking is a worthwhile activity on its own. Even if didn’t provide a single health benefit, the simple fact that you enjoy it is enough for us to encourage you to get out on the trail.
But the fact is, the health benefits of hiking are legion. Get out on the trail more frequently (and perhaps rack up a few more miles) and you’ll start looking and feeling better in no time.