Is Hiking Good for You?

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If you're a fan of hitting the trails or taking long walks through nature, you're likely aware of the benefits (and potential risks) of hiking. Hiking is a mentally and physically stimulating activity that has grown in popularity over the last several decades with efforts to create trail networks and tourism services. Hiking is now one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities for people of all ages.

Because hiking is an enjoyable and highly beneficial exercise, it's no wonder people everywhere are drawn to it. Being physically active in ways you enjoy is ideal for ensuring motivation stays strong, and participation is consistent.

Hiking also is an accessible form of physical activity—particularly because it doesn't require a lot to get started and is adaptable to your fitness level. Moreover, many physical and mental benefits are gained from hiking in natural spaces. Research shows that time in nature may improve health by encouraging physical activity, restoring mental and emotional health, and providing time spent with others who join you. Find out more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking below.

Is Hiking Good For You?

Yes, hiking is an excellent form of physical activity that provides numerous health and wellness benefits. However, it's important to be aware of safety measures while hiking to mitigate potential risks.

Physical Health Benefits of Hiking

When hiking, you can experience immediate physical health benefits such as improved blood pressure, lower stress levels, and better immune system functioning. But, additional benefits can be gained from consistently hiking over months and years, including reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, building strength, and improving coordination and balance. Here is what you might expect.

Improves Cardiovascular Health

The unpredictable and often steep terrain of a hiking trail also will challenge your heart causing is to pump harder and keep you moving. Depending on your route and fitness level, this exercise will allow your heart to reach a moderate to high-intensity zone, which will improve your cardiovascular health in ways beyond more traditional walking.

Research shows that movement that increases your heart rate to 70% to 80% of your predicted maximum, improves overall cardiovascular health. Plus, a higher daily step counts lower risks of all-cause mortality. Hiking provides both of these heart benefits while also boosting blood flow to your brain, which can improve cognition and brain health as well.

Burns Calories

Walking on an incline is more physically demanding than walking on flat ground and requires higher muscle activation and effort, leading to a higher calorie burn. Using hiking as part of your plan to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is an effective choice. Not only will you burn plenty of calories, but you may also reduce stress hormones such as cortisol which can contribute to weight gain.

Builds Balance and Coordination

Due to the uneven terrain of many hiking trails, including obstacles such as rocks, roots, steep inclines, and winding pathways, hiking requires and builds substantial balance and coordination. The strength in your legs also will improve from walking on an incline and stepping up over obstacles, helping to build muscles and bones.

Mental Health Benefits of Hiking

Spending time in nature provides plenty of benefits for your mental health. Combine this with the cognitive and mood-boosting effects of exercise, you have a potent duo that promotes overall wellness. Just surrounding yourself in a natural environment has been shown through research to boost happiness, mental energy, and mood. And, further research has confirmed that exercising in nature, such as while hiking, has immense health benefits. Here are some additional benefits.

Reduces Stress and Anxiety

According to the International Journal of Psychophysiology, walking or hiking in nature reduces stress and anxiety levels while improving your overall psychological state when compared to exercising in indoor environments. Moreover, exercising in nature has been shown to boost levels of self-esteem, improving mood and wellbeing.

It's clear that stress relief and better self-esteem will have highly positive effects on your overall mood; exercising in nature can also impact how your brain functions. Research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology shows that exercising in nature alters brain function. The result is an improved focus on your surroundings that takes your mind off of internalized problems that may contribute to poor mood.

More mental health benefits such as less worry and panic, increased positive emotions, and overall feelings of wellbeing and positive mood have all been shown to occur when exercise is taken outdoors in natural spaces.

Promotes Healthy Aging

A study of older adults in Canada discovered that hiking helps with active aging by encouraging a sense of control over the physical aging process and boosting camaraderie for those who hiked with others in a social setting. These effects may lead to older adults feeling more positive about themselves while they age, and staying in touch with others helps fend off loneliness, which leads to mental health decline.

Safety Considerations

There are many safety considerations to be aware of when it comes to hiking. Depending on the type and length of your trek, you will need water, food, and other gear that will keep you safe, warm, and dry. Make sure you also have proper footwear that keeps you dry, fits well, and won't cause blisters.

Ensure you have enough food and water for your hike, plus extra in case your trip does not go as planned. Drink often, especially on hot days, to prevent dehydration. If you will be sweating or exercising for long periods, consider adding electrolytes to your water. It's also a good idea to pack clothing layers for unplanned changes in the weather, such as rain or wind.

One of the biggest risks of hiking is getting lost. It's vital to stick to designated trails, take a map, and tell others where you plan to go and when you plan to return. A GPS tracker is also a very wise choice to help prevent getting lost. If possible, avoid hiking alone or choose trails that are well populated with other hikers.

Other essential items to pack that hiking groups recommend include:

  • A map or compass
  • Water purification system
  • Fire starter and matches
  • First aid kit
  • Knife or multi-purpose tool
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses (polarized, UV blocking)
  • Shelter such as an emergency bivy (or waterproof cover)

Bottom Line

Hiking is a rewarding hobby that provides numerous health and wellness benefits. Including hikes as part of your lifestyle can improve your heart health, strengthen your bones, build muscle, strengthen your mental health, and improve overall physical health.

Start with shorter day trails and build up from there. Make sure you also pack wisely before a hike and keep safety in mind by planning for emergencies and letting people know where you are going and when you will return.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.