No matter the location or landscape, a spending time in nature during a good hike is good for your physical, mental and spiritual health. Getting outdoors can help strengthen your immune system, reduce blood pressure, increase energy, boost your mood and find focus. Combine all of that with the low-impact cardiovascular activity of walking, and the health benefits are clear.
Nature’s Immune-Boosting Impact
Nature provides the perfect environment for exercise. Forests and green spaces contain higher concentrations of oxygen and less air pollution than urban areas, making it easier to breathe and get the oxygen levels your body needs during physical exertion.
Additionally, plants produce chemicals called phytoncides. These natural oils are a defense against pests like insects, fungi and bacteria. They also boost the human immune system, helping you respond to virus-infected cells and the cells that form tumors. And the impact is long lasing: Studies show that increased NK cell activity can last for more than 30 days after a forest trip.
Hiking as a Disease-Fighting Hobby
With low-impact sports like hiking, you can experience all the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic activities with a minimum amount of stress and strain on your body. Regular exercise can also:
- Ease anxiety and depression
- Help you control your weight
- Improve your longevity and quality of life
- Keep you physically fit
- Relieve arthritis pain
- Support healthy bones, muscles, and joints
It can also substantially reduce your risk for chronic health conditions, such as anxiety, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and osteoporosis.
Did you know that hiking releases adrenaline? This is important because when adrenaline accumulates, it can cause muscle strain and heightened anxiety. Studies have shown that walking results in immediate decreases in tension and anxiety, no matter how slow or fast you walk.
Walking also releases endorphins that can lift your spirits and keep them elevated throughout the day or night – benefitting your brain and body.
If you have Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes, walking can reduce the amount of insulin you need. If you have Type II (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes, walking can reverse the disease course as part of a weight loss program that includes both diet and exercise.
The Centers for Disease Control has completed 43 separate studies showing that exercise can help people significantly reduce their chances of heart problems. In fact, those who don't exercise are twice as likely to suffer from coronary heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
Almost one-third of Americans have high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke, heart attack and other serious health problems. The low-impact cardiovascular exercise you get while hiking, can help lower your blood pressure four to ten points.
Hiking can help you lose weight and stabilizing your cholesterol levels. The average person burns 100 calories for every mile walked. So if you’re walking an average rate of two and a half miles per hour, you can burn 200 to 250 calories. People who try to lose weight from dieting alone are more likely to gain it back, while those who lose it through a combination of healthy nutrition and incorporating a low-impact activity like hiking or walking are more likely to maintain their goal and may even continue to lose weight.
Osteoporosis and Arthritis
Hiking and walking can help increase bone density and slow the rate of calcium loss. This strengthens the bones and makes them less likely to break. The University of Washington found that women diagnosed with osteoporosis who spent one hour walking three days a week increased the bone density of their spine and other body areas by six percent over nine months.
Gear Up for a Healthy Hike
If you’re interested in hiking, invest in a few essential items that will keep you comfortable and protect you from injury. Good hiking gear can last for years and keep you safe and happy on the trail. Consider investing in:
A Map, Compass or GPS
Phones and GPS aren’t always reliable when you’re in backcountry. Carry a paper map and a compass.
First Aid Kit
Carry band-aids, antiseptic wipes and tweezers. If you plan on distance hiking or a multi-day trip, consider first aid training.
Calorie-dense foods like protein bars will keep you going when you’re on the trail. Pack an extra serving in case you’re out longer than you expect.
Select well-fitting shoes or boots that provide traction, support and protection.
A multi-tool or pocket-knife has countless uses including first aid and gear repair.
Rain Gear and Layers
Dress in layers for changing temps, precipitation and activity levels. Wear moisture-wicking fabrics and a hat.
Pack a flashlight, fire-starting tools and a whistle to signal for help if you need it.
Invest in an inexpensive space blanket to protect yourself from the elements if you get injured or stranded.
Even if you are hiking in the woods, you should use sunscreen, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing.
Water Bottle, Canteen and Water Filter
You’ll need half a liter of water for every hour you hike at a moderate temperature. Carry enough water and pack a filter.
Ready to Hit the Trail?
If you live with obesity or a chronic disease, easing into an exercise routine under a doctor's supervision can help you avoid injuries and keep you moving forward toward your goals.
Be sure to consult your primary care provider before beginning a new exercise program and talk with them about ways to hit the trail safely.