Whether you're bored with your workout routine, craving adventure or just desperately need to connect with nature, a hike is the perfect way to fulfill all of those needs.
You don't need special skills to start putting one foot in front of the other — and you don't need to be on a mountain to go on a hike. Venturing out to more secluded paths in your local parks and beaches can give you the forest-bathing benefits you seek, whether you're a fitness newbie or a seasoned athletes.
Aside from adopting a new fitness challenge and getting some fresh air, there are some real health payoffs of heading for rocky terrain.
1. Hiking Strengthens Your Lungs
If one of your fitness goals is to improve your endurance, the trails can make that happen. Any form of cardiovascular exercise can strengthen your lungs (and your entire cardiorespiratory system, which includes your heart, lungs, airways and blood vessels).
It's well-established that cardio exercise, such as walking, hiking, running, swimming, dancing, stair-climbing and even interval training, improves endurance and increases lung capacity, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
What gives hiking an edge, though, is that uneven terrain, switchbacks and inclines will challenge your cardiorespiratory system in a way that walking or running on flat surfaces can't.
In fact, a small November 2013 report in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that walking on an uneven surface, such as a hiking trail, requires more energy and muscle activation than walking on flat ground, effectively increasing your effort, raising your heart rate and increasing your breathing rate.
In addition to strengthening your lungs, cardiovascular exercise strengthens the most important muscle of all: your heart. Just like the relationship between hiking and lung health is well-established, so is the relationship between hiking and heart (or cardiovascular) health.
Simply walking is associated with lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, more stable blood sugar, less arterial stiffness, lower inflammation and more, according to a May 2019 study in Preventing Chronic Disease. So imagine what hiking — which is essentially a super-tough walk — can do for your heart health.
An August 2014 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation of women with obesity found that the women who participated in 12 weeks of "trekking exercise," which included downhill walking, experienced more weight loss and greater reductions in systolic blood pressure — two markers associated with your risk of heart disease — than women in the control group who did not exercise.
3. Hiking Can Help Manage Blood Sugar
Regular hiking might help you prevent or manage type 2 diabetes by lowering your blood sugar levels. Hiking gives your muscles a workout, which requires your body to move glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream to your working muscles for energy.
All forms of exercise do this, according to a May 2018 review in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research. But hiking may be even more beneficial for blood-sugar control because of its duration: Hikes typically take longer than a gym session, and the longer you exercise, the longer your body must pull sugar from your bloodstream (or other stores) to fuel your muscles.
Lots of hikes over time can add up to a big difference in your typical blood sugar levels. Aerobic exercise, or any form of steady-state exercise that recruits the major muscles and produces an increase in heart rate and breathing rate, may be very beneficial for people with diabetes.
An aerobic exercise program that's as short as eight weeks can improve insulin sensitivity, body weight and weight circumference in people with type 2 diabetes, according to an August 2014 study in the Global Journal of Health Science.
4. It Works Multiple Muscles
A good incline taxes all the muscles in your lower body. Hills, uneven terrain and switchbacks make for a challenging workout that recruits muscle fibers in your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes and core. If you wear a backpack or choose a trail that requires a bit of scrambling or climbing, hiking can also serve as an upper-body workout.
In addition to the incline, the uneven terrain present on hikes will challenge your body in ways that walking on a flat road or treadmill can't, no matter how much of an incline you add.
For example, a trail with narrow straits that requires side-shuffling or tiptoeing will recruit smaller stabilizer muscles that your body doesn't need for a basic walk. And if you find yourself pulling yourself up and over a big boulder, you've now scored yourself a total-body workout!
5. Hiking Is Good for Your Bones
As you get older, performing weight-bearing exercise becomes more and more crucial due to age-related bone loss. Because hiking is essentially leveled-up walking, and walking can help you maintain bone density, it makes sense that hiking can do so, too.
While walking might help slow bone loss, current research doesn't support walking alone as an intervention for degenerative bone diseases such as osteoporosis, according to a March 2019 review in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy.
A December 2018 study in BioMed Research International found that although walking can slow bone loss, walking alone does not help increase bone mass, but walking in conjunction with resistance exercise can — which is all the more reason to add hiking to your fitness regimen: Because hiking places more resistance on your body and usually includes hills, it may offer more bone benefits than a walking routine on flat ground, per the Mayo Clinic.
6. It Can Raise Your Spirits
When you're stressed, your muscles tense up, your heart rate increases and you become irritable, but the act of moving can actually help turn down your body's fight-or-flight response and make you more resilient in the face of challenging situations, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
If you want to take your workout outdoors, the good news is that hiking combines the powerful mood-boosting effects of exercise and nature. For example, a small May 2017 study in PLOS One, people who hiked outside reported feeling more calm and less tired post-exercise than people who walked on a treadmill_._
Forest bathing — or hiking and walking in nature — is thought to help improve blood pressure and reduce stress, according to an August 2017 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Participants in the study, which included middle-aged and elderly adults living with chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension, reported less tension, fatigue, depression and anxiety, as well as a more positive mood after two hours in nature.
7. Hiking Might Improve Your Sleep
If you have trouble sleeping some nights, try incorporating hikes (or simply outdoor walks) into your workout routine.
Exercise in general can help you sleep better at night, according to a July 2018 meta-analysis in the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences. Hiking, too, can help support healthy rest: Two hours of hiking in nature for eight weekend days helped improve sleep quality and duration in a small October 2011 study in BioPsychoSocial Medicine of 71 healthy adults.
8. It May Aid Weight Loss
Any form of exercise can help you lose weight, as long as you burn more calories than you consume each day. Hiking, however, might help you lose weight faster compared to certain forms of exercise because you can burn more calories in less time.
When it comes to weight loss, hiking has a leg up on gentler exercise such as walking, yoga and tai chi simply because it's more intense.
For instance, a 155-pound person burns 167 calories in 30 minutes walking at four miles per hour. Meanwhile, the same person would burn 223 calories hiking for the same amount of time, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
9. Hiking Improves Balance and Stability
If you're on the hunt for a good core workout but you despise sit-ups and other common ab exercises, hit the trails: Because hiking forces you to walk along uneven terrain, sometimes with intense curves, inclines and declines, it forces you to engage your core the entire time.
If you're wearing a backpack, you'll need to engage your core even more to maintain good posture while supporting that extra weight.
Improving core strength resulted in improved stability and balance in a small January 2014 study of older adults in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, and better balance helps with essentially all daily living activities.
Roots, boulders, holes and lots of plant life lining a trail add even more of a challenge: You'll have to dip, skirt, crouch, hop and side-step to get around such obstacles, adding another element of core stabilization and balance to your hikes.
Follow These Hiking Safety Tips
If you're going to reap the benefits of hiking, you need to implement a few safe trail practices.
Make sure you pack enough water and food to keep yourself going strong through the full hike. Wear broken-in hiking boots, thick socks, sunscreen and insect repellent.
If you see any wildlife such as bears, rattlesnakes or mountain lions, the National Park Service advises backing away slowly; don't run or startle the animal in any way. Report what you saw to a park ranger.
Steer clear of potentially poisonous plants, too. A general rule of thumb is to avoid plants with three leaves, which include poison ivy and poison oak.
Keep in mind that you're at the mercy of weather changes and, sometimes, unpredictable terrain. Always hike with a buddy or at least let friends and family back home know your whereabouts before venturing out. And after ensuring your own safety, look out for the Earth, too: Pack out what you pack in, aka don't leave any trash, food or gear behind.
If you see any wildlife such as bears, rattlesnakes or mountain lions, back away slowly; don't run or startle the animal in any way.
- Journal of Experimental Biology: "Biomechanics and Energetics of Walking on Uneven Terrain"
- Preventing Chronic Disease: "Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention"
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: "Trekking Exercise Promotes Cardiovascular Health and Fitness Benefits in Older Obese Women"
- Journal of Clinical Medicine Research: "Exercise Therapy for Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Narrative Review"
- Global Journal of Health Science: "The Effect of 8 Weeks Aerobic Exercise on Insulin Resistance in Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Clinical Trial"
- Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy: "Exercise for the Prevention of Osteoporosis in Postmenopausal Women: An Evidence-Based Guide to the Optimal Prescription"
- BioMed Research International: "The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tweak Your Walking Routine for Muscle and Bone Health"
- PLOS One: "Affective Responses in Mountain Hiking—A Randomized Crossover Trial Focusing on Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Activity"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Effects of Short Forest Bathing Program on Autonomic Nervous System Activity and Mood States in Middle-Aged and Elderly Individuals"
- Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences: "Exercise Can Improve Sleep Quality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Journal of Aging and Physical Activity: "Core Muscle Strengthening's Improvement of Balance Performance in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Pilot Study"
- National Park Service: "Hiking In Bear Country"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Physical Activity and Your Heart"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Simply Moving Benefits Your Mental Health"
- BioPsychoSocial Medicine: "A Before and After Comparison of the Effects of Forest Walking on the Sleep of a Community-Based Sample of People with Sleep Complaints"