Keeping your cardiovascular system in good shape is important, but what if you get bored on the treadmill or elliptical in your gym? Getting outdoors for a hike on a regular basis can be healthy for both your body and mind during the right time of year, even when the weather forces you to stay inside.
Although you may think of hiking as scaling large mountaintops, that’s not the only way to do it. There are many ways to hike, including at any pace and with varying difficulties. Hiking can be done at any pace and with varying difficulties, so it can be done by everyone. To reap all the health benefits of hiking, it is important to make it a regular part of your routine. Taking one hike every few months won’t produce the same results as hiking regularly. However, hiking can be dangerous due to a number of factors, so staying safe from injury is equally important (via AccuWeather).
We’ll examine how hiking changes your body on a daily basis – both positively and negatively.
Your endurance and heart health improves
Unlike walking on a treadmill or paved trail, hiking is usually going uphill and downhill moderately. This deviation from “flat road” walking boosts your cardiovascular health and builds your endurance at the same time. Hiking is a highly cardiovascular exercise that can lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, stroke, and more (via Piedmont Healthcare).
The best cardiovascular health benefits come from putting in the right amount of effort. You’ll want your heart to beat 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate during a moderate-intensity hike. According to the site, moderate-intensity activity is defined as being able to talk, but not sing.
Since you don’t realize you’re going as far, you may even gain endurance. Being outside can be distracting — and in a good way. According to physician Eva Selhub, exercising outdoors is easier because you don’t feel fatigued and hurting and can go faster and longer than you would indoors. You won’t groan out of boredom on a 30-minute hike outside as you would on a treadmill if you had to do it indoors.
You can lose weight
Burning calories is a common metric used in weight-loss plans. Eat fewer calories and exercise more to lose weight (via Mayo Clinic).
During physical activity, we burn stored energy or calories, and hiking’s specific needs can increase calorie burn, according to the Washington Trail Association. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, walking on uneven terrains, such as nature trails, requires 28% more energy because you must shift your leg muscles to move around the uneven surface. By exerting extra effort, more calories are burned, resulting in weight loss.
You will burn a variety of calories depending on a number of factors, including how heavy your pack is, how fast you are going, and how difficult your trail is. According to the Washington Trail Association, moderate hiking burns 300 to 400 calories an hour.
Leg muscles become stronger
Regardless of how many machines you have used at the gym to strengthen your legs, hiking is essentially a leg day workout for your calves, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Hiking is like a natural leg press or stair climber for your calves, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps. And what’s even better is, that hiking includes that coveted downhill motion, which leaves your legs feeling like Jell-O.
For you to avoid falling when going downhill, your glutes and quadriceps need to do a lot of slow, controlled work, says Joel Martin, assistant professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion at George Mason University. In this case, you are resisting gravity against weight, which in this case is your body’s weight. Eccentric contractions damage muscle fibers the most because they are similar to those you experience when gradually lowering weights at the gym.
Although hiking does not yield the same results as bodybuilding, you should see muscle tone over time. Hiking uses even more muscles than the 200 it takes to take one step (per Gear Up Hiking).
Strengthening your core
You may not realize that hiking actually works your core, even though it’s typically thought of as heavy on the lower body. In addition to preventing fatigue and injuries, strong core muscles are also crucial for athletes (including hikers and runners). However, crunches aren’t the only exercise you can do.
Your abs and lower back are more important to carrying a hiking backpack and keeping your spine safe (via Backpacker) as you balance on different terrain and stabilize yourself.
In addition to supporting your back and preventing possible injury while hiking, exercising those abdominal muscles during the hike will keep your posture upright. In order to boost your ab strength and make your hikes more enjoyable, you can do exercises off the trail as well.
Hiking even works your upper body
If you want to take your hike to the next level, grab some trekking poles so you can work your upper body.
As you walk over uneven terrain, the poles will not only make you work your arm muscles, but they will also give you a little extra stability as well.
But how could a couple of poles really be an effective arm workout? Earth Trek Gear explained that hiking poles are ideal for strengthening and toning the arms, because they provide gentle strength training, as they require a lower resistance “pull” motion. Over the course of 12 weeks, researchers found that using hiking poles while walking increased hand grip strength and arm curl strength (via Earth Trek).
The other benefit of hiking with trekking poles is that you can distribute your body weight more evenly, saving your lower body some energy, as well as increasing your calorie burn by 15 to 20%.
Hiking serves as cross-training
The saying “variety is the spice of life” can be applied to exercising as well. Cross-training is a critical part of any athletic program, even if you are very fit in a cardiovascular sense and run or cycle regularly.
In a Shape interview, Joel Martin, assistant professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion at George Mason University explained that cyclists tend to have strong quads but underdeveloped hamstrings, while runners tend to have weak hamstrings and glutes. “Hiking strengthens these muscles to eliminate those types of imbalances.”
Hiking is especially beneficial for runners who train on pavement, since pavement can be hard on the joints (Runner’s World). Injury prevention can also be achieved by using a different set of muscles for stabilization. Also, it is a great way to get your heart rate up without adding more mileage to your daily run or cycle.
At higher elevations, you get a more intense workout
It is common to hike on trails with varying elevations. The elevation change can itself be a workout. Exercise at higher elevations requires less oxygen, so at first, it may be challenging. After some time, you will become accustomed to the intensity, making flat-road workouts seem easy.
This is supported by research. Male endurance runners who exercised at a high altitude twice a week for six weeks took 35% longer to tire than runners who exercised at sea level (via Washington Trail Association), according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
You don’t want to rush to the highest mountaintops just yet. Give yourself some time to acclimate, since altitude sickness can occur if you walk or climb too fast. According to WebMD, this is primarily a factor when exercising at 8,000 feet or above, but it can be extremely dangerous.
When you don’t fuel up properly, you can become dehydrated or fatigued
The most important thing is to prepare — especially when it comes to water — whether you are hiking for a short jaunt in the woods or an ultra trail run. Hiking in a desert climate with sun exposure can lead to dehydration, especially if the weather is bad, you are injured, or simply get lost.
Before you begin your hike, you should begin hydrating. You do not want to carry too much water that weighs your pack down and causes you to exert a lot of energy. When hiking in desert climates, you should drink at least three liters of water during the day (via Your Hike Guide). When loading your pack (via Embracing the Wind), keep in mind that water weighs 2 pounds per liter. To get a health plan tailored to your unique needs, consult with your medical professional team about hydration and nutrition.
You may not realize how hiking benefits your physical health
The physical benefits of hiking outside in nature extend beyond just a workout. Just being outside gives you vitamin D from the sun. According to Johns Hopkins University researchers, vitamin D can protect your cardiovascular system by providing heart health benefits.
As well as feeling good, breathing in fresh air is healthy for the body as well. According to the National Park Service, hiking outdoors can reduce respiratory problems. An even 30-minute hike can improve your lung capacity, according to the Lung Health Institute. While hiking can be a challenging workout for your lower body, its weight-bearing characteristics boost bone density, build muscle mass, and prevent osteoporosis even when your lower body is working hard. Those with arthritis can benefit from it by becoming “more mobile and limber,” Piedmont Healthcare explained.
If you are already diabetic, hiking may reduce your insulin requirements, according to Piedmont, but you should consult your doctor before stopping any medications or exercising more.
There are numerous mental health benefits
In addition to being good for your physical health, hiking also offers numerous mental health benefits. Just getting out in nature releases endorphins and serotonin, which can boost your happiness. In 2015, a study found that even a 90-minute nature walk can stop you from ruminating, or brooding, and give you a sense of peace in the process.
It is possible to reduce stress and anxiety and combat depression by spending time outdoors. According to Susan Kraus Whitbourne, professor of psychology, even seeing pictures of nature can reduce stress, so you can imagine how it feels to be outside in nature.
It is important to unplug from technology when hiking in more remote areas, since you may not have phone service. The Seattle Backpackers Magazine report suggests that having a clearer perspective can boost creativity and improve your brain’s performance.
Relationships can be strengthened by hiking
A hike is one of the best things in life that can be shared with others. While some may enjoy the solitude of walking alone in the woods with their thoughts, you can also incorporate hiking into your social schedule. As much as hiking may benefit your mental and physical health, it can also affect your relationship. By going through challenging activities, hiking can improve your existing relationships (National Park Service).
In addition to serving as a healthy outlet to meet new people, outdoor activities like hiking can also be a great way to meet new people. To find out if there are hiking groups in your area, check out social media or outdoor outfitters in your area. If not, start your own! You can also form camaraderie on the trail by striking up conversations with other hikers. For safety reasons or to socialize, it’s a great way to get an idea of what lies ahead.
Certain risks are involved with your activities
I don’t want to harp on the negatives, but hiking poses some health and safety risks. There are cases when you will need to consult your medical team before you start integrating hiking into your workout routine, even though hiking can be a healthy workout for many people.
You should consult your doctor before hiking if you have hypertension or heart disease, says Dr. Michael Bednarz, a podiatric surgeon. “You use very different muscles when climbing vertically than you do on flat surfaces, so be sure to stretch and listen to your body’s limits.” Even if you’re healthy, climbing vertically can be a whole new ballgame.
Consult your doctor on a regular basis when you increase your hiking mileage to mitigate any health risks. Nutrition is also key, so you need to have a healthy diet that matches your level of activity so you can maximize your workouts. In addition, it is a smart idea to bring a buddy hiking with you, especially if you are hiking alone for the first time. In addition to helping you navigate, an extra person will be there in case you get injured (via WebMD).
Frequently asked questions
What does hiking do to your body shape?
The results of consistent, sustained hiking suggest a positive effect on body composition measures such as abdominal mass, lean mass, waist-to-fat ratio, and fat-free ratio. In addition to fitness advantages, it has lifestyle benefits, such as the reduced risk of chronic cardiovascular disease, and an increased caloric burn.
Does hiking tone your body?
A successful workout also requires variety.
While hiking long, flat trails builds endurance and stamina, hiking short, steep trails tones muscles and strengthen your cardiovascular system and lungs
What happens to your body after a hike?
In the case of long hikes or intense physical activity, your body will rely on your glycogen stores for fuel. During physical activity, your muscles will also break down or become damaged. Studies indicate that the sooner we eat, the faster we will recover.
What happens if I hike every day?
As a result of research (and my own experience), hiking offers a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. In addition to reducing weight, strengthening muscles, reducing diseases, and enhancing endurance, exercise also reduces stress, as experts advise.