After being stopped by 11 red lights in a row, I was idling in my black Kia Forte while life was put on hold for the apparent reason of testing the red LEDs in the stoplights hung above while the opposite greens gave the go-ahead to nonexistent vehicles, I began to get ancy and felt myself slowly slipping into a mood of despair.
So I decided to take a 5-mile hike to cool my jets and rebalance my mood. Due to the many health benefits of hiking, I instantly felt more calm, peaceful and at one with myself as soon as I stepped foot on the trail.
The further I continued on the trail — as I listened to a woodpecker’s beak bounce off the bark of a nearby tree, saw the sights of a vibrant green field of ferns growing beneath a canopy of palms and pines, and felt my waterproof Columbia hiking boots slosh through the shallow mud below — the health benefits of hiking became greater and more conceivable.
By the end of the peaceful 5-mile hike through the lowland pine scrub of Central Florida, I was completely satisfied. My mood was 100 times better than before. My calf muscles bulged from the tops of my thermal hiking socks. My core was a little bit tighter. And my metabolism amped up and ready for the next meal.
But those four things are just some of the health benefits of hiking I immediately saw. The truth is that hiking is a great exercise that has far greater benefits than the ones we can see firsthand. These are the other health benefits of hiking.
Health Benefits of Hiking
1. Strengthen Core
Besides our calf and leg muscles, which tend to bulge very quickly when taking on a regular hiking regimen, our core is the second-most strengthened part of our body.
While you hike, especially with a heavy pack strapped to your back, you engage your body’s core to keep your posture in a healthy, upright position. This engagement not only burns calories at a rapid rate, but it also helps to slim down your waist and shed pure belly fat.
Even if you don’t carry a backpack and only go on flat trails, pretty much the equivalent of walking instead of hiking — but I can attest to both — you can start strengthening your core and burning fat in no time.
2. Build Muscles
In addition to building core muscles, hiking engages nearly every muscle in your legs — from the larger calf muscles and glutes to the smaller muscles that strengthen our knees and ankles.
Even though hiking is considered a low-intensity workout (unless you’re doing some serious mountain hiking that involves scrambling or low levels of oxygen in the air), you’re likely hiking for a few hours at a time. That means all these muscles are engaged for the entirety of your hike, and keep strengthening with every hike you take.
So the next time you want to hit the treadmill to get a lower-body workout in, consider hiking for a few hours instead. The dynamic movements mixed with the fresh air will have your body and mind feeling better!
3. Lose Body Fat
Hiking is exercise. Exercise burns calories. More calories burned leads to less body fat. It’s a pretty simple equation that leads to less body fat and more muscles.
Now, like going to the gym, you’re not going to see instantaneous results. But if you get on a good regimen and stick to it, starting by hiking a few miles once or twice a week, you’ll start to see real results in a few weeks.
4. Boost Mental Health
If you go out into nature, getting away from modern technology and screens, and truly immerse yourself in your surroundings — taking in the birds chirping, wind swirling, leaves crunching and animals frolicking — you’ll come off the trail in a better mood and with a sense of accomplishment.
It’s not just in your head, either. In 2015, a Stanford study found that people who hike or walk in natural areas free of vehicles and outside noise had decreased activity in the brain’s region that’s associated with depression.
Plus, physical activity has already been known to release endorphins, which are the hormones in your body that make you feel happy. So being out in nature not only boosts your mood immediately, but it also has a positive impact on your long-term mental health.
5. Helps Balance
Playing hockey while growing up, I learned balance very quickly by teetering on the edge of two thins skate blades on a sheet of ice. It was a pretty good lesson that’s helped my balance tremendously. But through multiple ankle injuries to both my right and left ankle — and having to undergo extensive ankle surgery in March 2019 — my balance began to suffer.
The first hike post-surgery, I wore a brace to keep my ankle strong, but I couldn’t quite make it up and down steep sections of the trails. Plus I found myself getting tangled up on roots protruding from the flat ground.
But strengthening your core, as well as all the muscles in your legs, ankles and knees actually helps improve balance over time — and I can personally attest to that (although you’ll still see me on the trails rocking double ankle braces — no shame!).
Since balance is such an important part of our long-term health, especially as we get older, that’s just another one of the major pros of hiking.
6. Improves Blood Health
A poor diet consisting of fast, packaged and processed foods leads to high blood pressure, more weight and even diabetes. I’m guilty of grabbing the occasional Chick-fil-A because I need something quick (or I just can’t fight the cravings of a spicy chicken sandwich paired with waffle fries, a cold Dr. Pepper and way too much buffalo and Chick-fil-A sauce).
But hiking can combat rising blood pressure by allowing you to get in your exercise in a peaceful environment. It’s a win-win.
Working out works to decrease blood pressure and hiking in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood, all factors that lead to lower blood pressure and healthier blood sugar levels — both components that help fight off diabetes as we get older.
7. Decrease Risk of Heart Disease
Even though your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells in your body, too much of it can be a bad thing. High cholesterol is the leading cause of heart disease among people these days, and it’s caused by not getting enough exercise, poor diets and bad blood health.
However, simply engaging in low-to-moderate intensity exercise like hiking can help regulate triglycerides and cholesterol levels, leading to a healthy heart and a decreased risk of heart disease.
Heart disease can also lead to strokes, so creating a good relationship with your heart health can actually reduce your risk of having a stroke at a later age.
8. Boost Bone Density
Bone density is what leads children to grow and older adults to lose height. It’s this density that helps keep our bones strong and healthy. Although calcium and vitamin D can help increase bone density (and you may want to consider taking a multivitamin with these ingredients), they only go so far.
The real hero of boosting bone density is to apply force to your bones through working out, aka hiking. The more you hike, especially when you’re going on tough, heavily inclined trails, the stronger your bone density gets.
If you get on a steady regime of hiking, you can start to increase the bone density throughout your body, including in vitals areas like the hips, ankles and knees.
9. Decreases Risk of Respiratory Issues
Unless you’re running for extended periods (I’m talking marathons and half marathons on the regular) or engaging in hardcore cardio interval workouts (similar to professional athletes), you’re likely not getting the levels of cardio to significantly increase your lungs’ ability to pump oxygen, blood and nutrients through your body.
But hiking for extended periods (more than 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity hiking per week) can significantly increase your cardio-respiratory fitness, allowing you to condition your lungs, heart and arteries and boost your overall health.
Let me tell you, I’ve been passed on many trails by 70-something-year-olds who are far from jacked — and it’s simply because they have many more years of hiking experience on me.
10. Overall Better Quality of Life
If the previous nine health benefits of hiking didn’t get you amped up to go on a hike immediately, consider the better quality of life hiking can provide.
By hiking just a few miles each week, or more if you can, you can help boost your mood, lower your risk of depression, strengthen your muscles, lose body fat, improve blood health, decrease the risk of respiratory issues and heart disease, help get better balance and boost bone density.
Does Hiking Build Muscle?
Yes, hiking builds muscles in key places in your body, including your core, glutes, calves, ankles and knees, among others. If you want to build muscle even quicker, try hiking moderate to strenuous trails multiple times per week with a backpack strapped to your back.
Is Hiking Good Exercise?
Yes, hiking is a tremendous exercise that can have many positive impacts on your body and your life, including building muscle, decreasing your risk of developing diabetes, increasing your respiratory health and shedding body fat!
If all of these health benefits of hiking combined don’t make you happy enough, try taking a cold summit beer to the top of your next mountain to help you celebrate your achievements!