6 Life-Changing Reasons to Take a Hike
Go take a hike—and we mean this in the best possible way.
For as long as there have been humans, they’ve longed to see Mother Nature up close and personal. Most of the time, they’ve used their own two feet to trek the trail. Hiking is a favorite pastime year round, and a lifelong adventure for some. Whether it’s scaling the tallest mountains in the world or simply breathing in the fresh air of the hills in your backyard, hiking is a way to disconnect and reconnect to the earth. While we know it’s a form of exercise and a healthy alternative to day-drinking, there are also plenty of benefits of hiking. From reducing anxiety to teaching us survival skills, here are some compelling reasons for getting outside.
Considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, anything we can do to fight back is worthwhile. Especially if it’s fun and fulfilling, like hiking. This type of exercise decreases bad cholesterol blood levels, while increasing good ones, says Steven Reisman, MD, a cardiologist and director of the New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center. “Exercise can also improve blood circulation, reduce or prevent high blood pressure, improve heart function and decrease the risk of developing diabetes,” he continues. “Moderate to high intensity aerobic activity can increase the benefit and this might include hiking uphill or carrying a heavy backpack.”
Dr. Reisman also says hiking offers different perks than traditional cardio, since it reduces stress, while improving our mood. With all of these perks combined, he says our risk of an acute heart attack is significantly less.
Though part of the beauty of hiking is admiring the world around you, if you don’t want to, um, fall off a mountain, you have to pay attention to where you’re walking. Regardless if it’s flat terrain or a hilly stretch, hiking helps us to stay centered and focused in real time, says Chris Fagan, author, adventurer, and founder of Sparkfire. After all, if you are giving all of your attention to remaining safe, you have little time to worry about what happened a week ago, or the big meeting you have coming up. Since many people battle anxiety, and struggle with letting go and living life, being immersed in nature can instantly calm us as we tune in to what’s around us.
One way to do this is to use all of your senses during a hike, says Serena Poon, a chef, nutritionist, and Reiki healer. “Focus on how the crisp air feels against your face, the sound of the leaves rustling, and the all-encompassing calm,” she says. In a sense, this meditation-lite, and can be done while hiking or during a rest break.
Reflect on a memorable hike you went on with friends or loved ones. As you make you way from one end to the other, you likely encountered a few peaks, some valleys, perhaps even jagged rocks. Depending on what part of the journey you were on, you utilized different parts of your body, and exerted more energy when you needed it. While most people don’t consider hiking to be interval training, it definitely fits the definition, says Pilates instructor Jamie Ehrlich. In the most basic form, this type of cardio workout means giving your all for a short period of time, followed by a period of rest. In fact, interval training is one of the most efficient types of cardio, helping you to burn calories while you’re on the trail, and for 24 hours afterwards. “Hiking builds in these intervals automatically simply by increasing your heart rate on the uphills and giving you rest on the downhills,” Ehrlich says.
You know that feeling when you return from a super-sweaty workout and you step into a warm, hot shower? Even though you probably rinse off daily, there’s something special about cleansing when you really, really need it. Now, add dirt and grime to that sticky feeling and a shower seems even more luxurious. As author and backpacker Cam Honan explains, hiking makes us grateful for everything we have. This is partly due to the work it takes to hike, but also due to the fact hiking slows us down enough to think and admire what we have.
“When we move through the world at the speed at which our bodies and minds were designed to travel—between two and three miles per hour—we are keeping in step with the universe’s rhythm, and in so doing become more in tune with the world around us,” Honan explains. “Whether it be the faint sound of a gently meandering stream, the autumnal smell of decaying leaves on a crisp November morning, or a bowl of plain cereal that never tasted better than when eaten on a mountaintop at sunrise, Mother Nature has an uncanny knack for reminding us to never take a single moment for granted.”
You don’t have to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail or pull a Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail to be a bona fide hiker. Regardless if you intend to stay overnight under the tapestry of the uninterrupted stars, or you enjoy nature for a single afternoon, being away from modern amenities teaches us about survivalism. Especially if we pause and look at what’s happening around us. Michael Ridolfo, certified survivalist and head naturalist at Mohonk Mountain House, says hiking introduces us to wildlife and challenges us to appreciate the beauty and bounty of nature. “Whether you’re searching for animals during a nighttime hike or learning to identify different types of trees, hiking can be a very educational experience,” he says. “As hikers build experience and begin to challenge themselves, they’ll pick up abilities like tracking animals on a trail or starting fires with just a match.”
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Honan says while we are enjoying the beauty of the planet with only a backpack to our name, it’s easy to see how little we actually need. “A shelter that keeps us dry, clothes that keep us warm, and food that fills our bellies. That’s about it,” he says. As you head into the woods and pair down to the essentials, it gives us an opportunity to stop the mad dash to the top of the food chain, and think critically about how we can be better partners to the environment. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we don’t need much when we try to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’” Honan says. “That irrespective of whether you are in the wilderness or the city, a simpler, less cluttered life is one of the surest paths to sustainable happiness."