The Health Benefits of Hiking

Going outside and taking a walk through nature can be an incredible experience, invigorating the senses while getting some exercise along the way. Hiking has been proven to have a multitude of benefits, for both the body and the mind. In this article, we are going to discuss some of those benefits, hopefully enticing you to get out and enjoy all that nature has to offer.

Boosting Your Health Via Nature

Did you know that spending time outside in the local wilderness exposes you to natural chemicals that promote your overall well-being? Not only that, but the serenity you can attain by simply taking in a scenic view of trees or other natural elements can decrease stress levels, uplifting your mood.

Forests Make Us Healthier

Numerous studies in the U.S. and around the world are exploring the health benefits of spending time outside in nature, green spaces, and, specifically, forests. Recognizing those benefits, in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries even coined a term for it: shinrin-yoku. It means taking in the forest atmosphere or “forest bathing,” and the ministry encourages people to visit forests to relieve stress and improve health.

Exposure to forests boosts our immune system. While we breathe in the fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.

Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects. Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.

Department of Environmental Conservation

couple hiking on a trail
male senior at the top of a mountain

How Many Calories Will I Burn While Hiking?

Depending on your weight, whether or not you are carrying gear with you, and the type of terrain, you can burn between 250 and 600 calories each hour you are out hiking. And these statistics are based on hiking at a leisurely, comfortable pace. With the right pair of hiking shoes, you can turn your hike into a jog through the forest, exponentially increasing burnt calories.

tick on a leaf

Hiking Safety

While the health benefits of hiking are extraordinary, there are a few precautionary measures you should take to help ensure you come back from your hike feeling better than before. Using an online trail guide or a map, research the trails you are considering prior to your hike. Know your physical limits. It may be a good idea to start on a moderate hiking trail featuring mostly level terrain before attempting trails with steep climbs and other obstacles. If you are hiking during warmer weather, be sure to bring insect repellant and/or wear high socks pulled over your pant legs to reduce your risk of getting bitten by a tick. Deer ticks, which can be almost microscopic in size, can carry several different diseases that can devastate your health without receiving the proper treatment. Always check for ticks when showering after your hike.

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