Hike Your Way to Better Health

A Jaunt Through the Woods Can Boost Your Fitness, Your Balance, and Your Mood
Photo Credit: Harvard Health

Walking is great exercise, but sometimes you need a break from your usual neighborhood loop or the monotony of the basement treadmill.

Head out for a hike instead. It's similar to walking but can give you a fitness boost along with a dose of novelty and adventure. And not only is hiking great exercise, it's a COVID-safe activity that doesn't require much equipment.

REAPING PHYSICAL BENEFITS

Navigating a winding, wooded trail can help your body build endurance, strength, and coordination, says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.

Hiking over uneven terrain requires more energy than walking on a level surface, so it burns more calories. If you are hiking uphill, your body has to work even harder, he says. A rigorous hike may offer many of the same physical benefits as interval training, which alternates low- and high-intensity exercise to increase cardiovascular fitness. During a hike, your heart rate goes up as you move up an incline and drops when you head downhill.

Traversing an irregular landscape can also build strength.

"You are using different muscles when you climb and descend," says Dr. Phillips.

If you haven't gone for a hike lately, you'll probably feel it in your hips and buttocks when you climb and in your thighs on the way down.

"Descending works the muscles in the fronts of your thighs, which need to function like a brake to keep you stable," he says.

Finding your footing on a rutted trail can help you become steadier on your feet.

"When you challenge your body, it will adapt. For example, if the terrain puts your balance to the test, it will push your internal balance system to improve," says Dr. Phillips.

IS IT A HIKE OR A WALK?

It's not always clear precisely where a walk turns into a hike, says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. But there are some clues to help you distinguish between the two, he says.

Your footwear. "One way to tell the difference is to think about your footwear. If you instinctively grab a pair of sneakers, chances are you're going on a walk. If you find yourself anticipating the need for a sturdier shoe to navigate more challenging terrain, you're probably on track for a hike," he says.

The terrain. Most people consider it a walk when you're on a smooth surface, such as a road, a sidewalk, or a trail with few obstacles to navigate. "If the route is more difficult and brings you from lower to higher ground, it's probably a hike," says Dr. Phillips.

The duration. Most walks tend to be quick, typically less than an hour. But a hike will usually last much longer. Being out for more than an hour at a time on a hike isn't unusual.

IMPROVING MIND AND MOOD

Hiking's benefits aren't only physical; they're mental as well.

Humans thrive when they are out in a natural setting, says Dr. Phillips. Simply being among the trees may improve a number of health indicators. Research has shown that the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku("forest bathing"), which encourages a slow enjoyment of nature, produces measurable physical changes.

A 2019 study in the International Journal of Biometeorology found that the practice reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. A 2011 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology noted its beneficial effects on blood pressure and potentially blood sugar levels.

Being out in nature also exposes you to new sights and experiences. The view from the same trail changes throughout the year as the trees grow or shed their leaves.

"Even when I think I know my way on a familiar path, I see something I've never seen before or haven't noticed, or something that has changed with the seasons," says Dr. Phillips.

The best thing about hiking is that it often doesn't feel like exercise.

"Some people who eschew exercise will gladly go for a hike," says Dr. Phillips. And because they enjoy it, they're more likely to stick with it.

Some trails even provide their own motivation to keep you going.

"If you ever want to hook someone on hiking, go to Acadia National Park in Maine. An hourlong hike there can take you up 400 feet to a peak where you get a panoramic view of the ocean below," says Dr. Phillips.

A destination hike like this allows you to earn a reward, in the form of a sight that you might otherwise not have gotten to see.

HOW TO GET STARTED

While hiking can be safely adapted to many fitness levels, there are some things you should do to prepare before you head out, says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.

Start slowly. If you've never hiked before, don't attempt to trek up a steep mountain. Flat trails pro-vide a great starting place. Look for local rail trails, which are level paths of stone dust or another soft surface. They run along old railway beds where tracks used to be. These are a great place for beginners that still get you out in nature. You can also use a smartphone app or online trail guide to find local routes that suit your ability level.

Bring a buddy. It's safer to hike with a friend, ideally someone who knows the area.

Do your research. Plan your route and know what terrain to expect before you leave. Also, make sure your cellphone will work in the area you choose so you can get emergency help if you need it.

Stop halfway. When you're hiking, only go about half as far as you want to hike. Don't forget, you still need to travel all the way back to your starting place.

Bring the right supplies. Ensure that you have sturdy footwear, and bring a hat and sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun, enough water to stay well-hydrated, insect and tick repellent, and a small first-aid kit.

Be flexible. Don't feel you need to achieve a certain hiking speed or distance goal. Rather, adapt your outing for the conditions you encounter on the trail.

Bolster your balance. If you need a little extra balance support, hiking poles can be a great solution, says Dr. Phillips. They cost around $20 at most outdoor supply stores and can give your arms a mini-workout while you walk.

 This article was originally published by Harvard Health.


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