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Hiking… trudging around outdoors without the comfort of regulated temperatures over terrain that can be hilly, rocky, muddy, and sandy through brush, briars, swamps, or deserts with flies, mosquitoes, ticks, scorpions, and all sorts of wild animals.
Sounds awful at first glance, so what’s the purpose of hiking?
Hiking, the simple act of strolling down a path through nature, offers a unique opportunity for exercise, socialization, learning, escape, reflection, expansion of thought, and improved mental well-being. One unparalleled activity with benefits covering the gamut of physical, social, familial, cognitive, mental, spiritual, and financial well-being.
Financial too? Yep, even financial.
No wonder it’s popular!
Let’s look at the purpose of hiking and its benefits in greater detail.
Physical Benefits of Hiking
Regular physical activity has a positive effect on your health where inactivity is associated with health issues like heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
The key is to get moving!
Hiking is the activity of choice for many people seeking consistent physical activity. The adventure of hiking and exposure to nature are great motivating factors for beginning, though the many benefits of hiking keep them on the trails.1,2,3
The physical activity of hiking benefit you by:
- Reducing the risk of heart disease4
- Boosting the immune system
- Lowering blood pressure
- Boosting good cholesterol (HDL)
- Lowering bad cholesterol (LDL)
- Lowering body fat
- Improved bone density
- Helping prevent diabetes5
- Lowering blood sugar
- Improving Vitamin D levels through sun exposure.
- Improving sleep quality by burning energy and reducing technological stimuli.
- Building muscle and improving strength in your core, legs, glutes, and even your arms, shoulders, pectorals, side muscles and back if you use trekking poles while hiking.
- Improving flexibility and coordination
For more on trekking poles and how to use them, see our article on How To Adjust Your Trekking Poles For Various Terrain.
Although hiking is generally considered safe for most people, talk to your doctor before you start hiking or participate in any other exercise program.
Social & Familial Benefits of Hiking
Hiking with others provides a wonderful way to build relationships with people who share the love of hiking and outdoors. Motivating and supporting one another on a hike opens communication, bonds between friends and family grow stronger, and new friendships are formed with people who were once strangers.
To grow your social sphere with other hikers, look to local hiking and outdoor groups in your area. Many people in these groups are looking to make friends with like-minded people and share in hiking adventures. These outdoor/hiking groups have a lot of great events to participate in.
I’ve made many great friends by participating in outdoor groups I’ve found through Meetup, Facebook, continuing education at local colleges, even a group sponsored by a local radio station.
I met my wife through a Meetup outdoors group. The group put on hikes but we happen to have met on a canoe/kayaking excursion.
Ashley and I started out as friends. After months of hiking and river runs, we began dating and eventually married.
I wouldn’t have my beautiful wife and daughter if it weren’t for outdoor groups.
How’s that for a social benefit of hiking?! In my life, I can give no greater example.
Grab a friend or family member and catch up with each other in the beautiful outdoors. Or join a hiking group and forge new friendships while enjoying all the benefits of hiking.
Related Content: How To Find A Hiking Buddy Or Hiking Group
Mental Benefits of Hiking
The mental benefits of hiking are many and varied. The greatest mental benefit of hiking is that it gives us the chance to unplug from technology which improves cognitive function and psychological wellbeing.
Let’s break the mental benefits of hiking down into cognitive and psychological benefits.
Cognitive Benefits of Hiking
Improved Creative Reasoning
A great improvement in reasoning is achieved by those that get out and hike.
Creative problem-solving skills can be improved by disconnecting from technology and getting into nature.6 Connecting with nature also improves attention levels which also accounts for improved scores on cognitive tests.7
People who regularly participate in an exercise like hiking have greater volume in parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. This is due to a reduction in insulin resistance, reduced inflammation, and stimulation in the growth and survival of brain cells.8
Hiking offers new adventures of sight, sound, and physical connection that expand our minds and understanding of the world in which we live. You don’t have to travel far for these experiences. There are many great parks nearby.
Learn About Nature
Hiking offers the opportunity to explore and learn about nature through immersion. I’ve found no better way to learn about our environment than to get out in nature.9
Also consider field guides for identifying the different species of trees, plants, and animals. There are so many learning opportunities!
Psychological Benefits of Hiking
Hiking Releases Happy Chemicals
Hiking releases serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins for improved mood and energy. These chemicals are responsible for our happiness.
Want to reduce anxiety and depression? Try hiking.
Hiking Lowers Stress and Frustration
The activities involved with hiking — exercise, visual stimulation, and communication (if hiking with others) provide a calming effect by reducing the stress hormone, cortisol.
Your improved physical health and appearance, the challenge of pushing yourself physically, the release of happy chemicals, and so much more go a long way toward improving your self-esteem.
Hiking provides an escape from the overwhelm of our daily lives. Technology, work overload, family obligations… So many tasks and problems can overwhelm us.
We need the “me time” that hiking can provide.
Other Psychological Benefits of Hiking
There are other psychological benefits from hiking that can be attributed to many of the points above. Hiking…
- Clears the mind for improved problem-solving.
- Yields a greater sense of self-awareness.
- Provides a rejuvenating experience.
- Improves peace of mind.
- Increases positive emotions.
Spiritual Benefits of Hiking
“Be still, and know that I am God…” ~ Psalm 46:10
Though you’re still moving, hiking provides a meditative experience for reflection and greater connection with the creator.
Do you need quiet time away from everyday life?
The views of mountains, streams, and fields… the colors and animals… the call of birds… the sounds of a flowing stream… the sound of a gentle breeze through the treetops and the feel of it caressing your skin…
Nature provides a spiritual benefit that can be found nowhere else.
Financial Benefits of Hiking
Hiking is far cheaper than many other athletic activities or joining a gym. Most everyone has access to local parks and they’re free!15
A pair of great hiking boots and a few articles of clothing are all you need to get started and these items can provide you many years of use. If you’re new to hiking and starting out on flat terrain, you might not need more than your tennis shoes, shorts, t-shirt, and a bottle of water.
The purpose of hiking isn’t to fix every problem but it sure does have a lot of benefits that can improve your life.
If you are new to hiking, don’t overdo it. Start out slow but first talk with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough for hiking.
As you improve physically, work up to more difficult trails. Though still really inexpensive. This is where you’ll need to invest in more hiking gear like hiking boots, hydration backpack, and trekking poles. For great deals on these items, check out Backcountry through the links provided or your local outfitter.
- Barbara Freidt, Eddie Hill, Edwin Gómez, and Marni Goldenberg. A Benefits-Based Study of Appalachian Trail Users: Validation and Application of the Benefits of Hiking Scale. Physical Health Education Nexus (PHENex). Volume 2, Issue 1, January 1, 2010, pages 1-22.
- Eddie Hill, Marni Goldenberg, and Barbara Freidt. Benefits of Hiking: A Means-End Approach on the Appalachian Trail. Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism & Recreation Research. Volume 2, Issue 1, July 1, 2009, pages 19-27.
- Daniel L. Dustin, Kelly S. Bricker, and Keri A. Schwab. People and Nature: Toward an Ecological Model of Health Promotion. Leisure Sciences. January 2010. 32(1):3-14.
- H. Gatterer, C. Raab, S. Pramsohler, M. Faulhaber, M. Burtscher, and N. Netzer. Effect of Weekly Hiking on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in the Elderly. Zeitschrift für Gerontologie und Geriatrie. February 2015, Volume 48, Issue 2, pp 150–153.
- David W. Jenkins and Alexander Jenks. Hiking with Diabetes Risks and Benefits. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association. September 2017, Vol. 107, No. 5, pp. 382-392.
- Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer, and Paul Atchley. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLOS ONE. December 12, 2012.
- M.G. Berman, J. Jonides, and S. Kaplan. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature. Psychological Science. 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12.
- Heidi Godman. Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Posted April 09, 2014, Updated April 05, 2018.
- Gherda Ferreira. Environmental Education through Hiking: a Qualitative Investigation. Environmental Education Research. Volume 4, 1998 – Issue 2.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Rob Jordan. Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature. Stanford News. June 30, 2015.
- Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross. Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). June 29, 2015.
- J. Sturm, M. Plöderl, C. Fartacek, K. Kralovec, D. Neunhäuserer, D. Niederseer, W. Hitzl, J. Niebauer, G. Schiepek, and R. Fartacek. Physical Exercise through Mountain Hiking in High‐Risk Suicide Patients. A Randomized Crossover Trial. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Volume 126, Issue 6, December 2012, Pages 467-475.
- Michael P. Kelley, Robert D. Coursey, and Peter M. Selby. Therapeutic Adventures Outdoors: A Demonstration of Benefits for People with Mental Illness. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. 1997, 20(4), 61-73.
- Denise Mitten, PhD, Jillisa R. Overholt, PhD, Francis I. Haynes, MA, Chiara C. D’Amore, PhD, and Janet C. Ady, PhD. Hiking: A Low-Cost, Accessible Intervention to Promote Health Benefits.
American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Volume: 12 issue: 4, page(s): 302-310.
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