Hiking for Physical and Mental Fitness
It's hard to deny exercise's many positive effects on the body, and going outdoors and getting into nature is a great way to refresh your mind. Combining the two and heading outside to go hiking could be the perfect solution if you want to improve your physical and mental fitness together at the same time.
Hiking Is Great for the Body
Hiking, or walking out in the elements over the wild countryside, is one of the most natural activities imaginable. If you enjoy walking as an exercise but detest doing mind-numbing sessions on a treadmill, hiking could be for you. It requires very little equipment or skills to get started, and you can easily select the difficulty of your hike depending on your experience. Start with a peaceful woodland stroll on a well-worn footpath, working your way up to more strenuous hill trails and rugged mountain treks.
Hiking is a great way to strengthen your lower body. In addition to working the legs and hips, walking on an uneven trail requires balance and stability, engaging the core muscles. According to the American Hiking Society, hiking excels as a cardiovascular exercise, improving overall health and fitness and reducing the risk of several health conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, osteoporosis, and arthritis.1
Hiking outdoors exposes you to the sun's ultraviolet rays, which help produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and may also benefit other functions such as muscle strength and immunity. Production in the skin is the body's primary natural source of vitamin D, but many people are deficient. One reason for this is that they spend too much time indoors.2 Sunlight exposure can also lead to better sleep by regulating the body's circadian rhythm, the inner body clock that tells us when to be awake and when to rest.
Hiking Creates Mental Fitness
As well as the numerous physical health benefits, spending time in nature benefits mental fitness. To begin with, it gives you a break from whatever problems you have at home or work. I find being outside in the fresh air clears my mind. It reduces my stress and improves my mindset, allowing thoughts and ideas to flow effortlessly. It's even better if I'm in a forest with the fresh smell of the trees and the sounds of the birds.
As a form of exercise, I find vigorous walking can reduce tension and anxiety, in part due to the release of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals released by the body under stressful conditions, and they have a direct relationship with an improved mood and sense of wellbeing. As endorphin levels in the body rise, stress and anxiety levels decrease.3 Research shows that physical exercise is particularly effective in relieving symptoms of depression. The antidepressant effects of exercise are not yet fully understood, but the effectiveness of physical activity in decreasing symptoms of depression is well documented.4
Hiking may be especially beneficial for depression. A Stanford-led study found that walking in a natural environment decreases activity in a part of the brain associated with depression compared to walking in a busy urban setting. Spending time in nature also has a positive effect on mood and elements of cognitive function, such as working memory, and has a dampening effect on anxiety.5
Hiking Towards an Improved You
Whatever your age or physical ability, almost everyone can find a hike with just the right difficulty level, making hiking an excellent option if you're looking for an exhilarating way to get fit and stay healthy. It offers a simple and effective way to simultaneously promote mental wellbeing and improve the overall quality of your life.
- American Hiking Society. (n.d.). Health Benefits of Hiking. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://americanhiking.org/resources/health-benefits-of-hiking/
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2023, March 7). Vitamin D. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022, May 19). Endorphins: What They Are and How to Boost Them. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23040-endorphins
- Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 06(03), 104–111. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v06n0301
- Jordan, R. (2015, June 30). Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. Stanford News. https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/
Brocklebank, M. (2023, April 3). Hiking for Physical and Mental Fitness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, February 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingablissfullife/2023/4/hiking-for-physical-and-mental-fitness