Why Hiking Needs To Be Part of Your Workouts

With many gym memberships still on pause, everyone’s looking for a new way to get in a good workout. Yet in between running around the neighborhood you haven’t left in six months and streaming yet another yoga class, you may have forgotten one of the oldest exercises in the book: hiking. Yes, that activity you treated as an excuse to peep fall foliage in the past can count as legitimate exercise, as Dr. Joel Martin, an exercise scientist and biomechanist at George Mason University, helps explain here. From toning your body to reshaping your brain, here are the biggest reasons why you should consider adding hiking to your fitness routine.

It’s simple

As far as workouts go, hiking couldn’t be much more straightforward. The only gear that’s truly necessary is the right footwear & apparel, a water bottle, and maybe some snacks for fuel. Finding a trail is easy as well, thanks to countless sites that promote the outdoors like TrailLink, TrailsNearMe, and even, ahem, Thrillist. Your local parks department or outdoors groups in your area can also be a source of trail knowledge. Perhaps the best part: hiking is almost always free.

The cardio benefits are huge

With any good exercise, the focus should be cardio exertion. Regularly performing sustained, low-to-moderate physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health. “Many health organizations recommend 150 minutes/week of moderate intensity physical activity for general health” Martin tells Thrillist. With hiking, it’s easier to hit those sustained periods since, well, you won’t get home until you finish. Tracking that level of intensity is simple enough — usually checking in with your breathing will tell you whether you’re actually exerting yourself or just breezing through the trails. You can also use a heart rate or activity monitor to keep you on pace — the target is 55-85% of your maximum heart rate for aerobic exercise. 

The results of regularly engaging in physical activity like hiking are huge: research has shown that getting this amount of exercise reduces levels of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even many types of cancer. “Other positive adaptations that can occur from physical activity is improved insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism, and other biomarkers of health.” 

You’ll develop better balance

Uneven terrain forces your body to work harder to stay upright. Regular hiking will train your balance, which can lead to improved performance in all other physical activities — a beneficial cycle of increased coordination. Plus, “positive changes in muscle strength can be seen from the hikes with uphill and downhill climbs,” Martin says. That is to say, the benefits of hiking aren’t purely cardiovascular. If you’re looking to strengthen and tone your quads, calves, and hamstrings, look for trails with a lot of elevation change.

Whether it’s a walk in the woods with friends or a long, calorie-burning trek, hiking requires the right footwear. Columbia Sportswear’s Facet trail shoe reimagines outdoor footwear with a running-inspired fit to provide underfoot comfort no matter what type of terrain you choose to tackle. Plus, the collection comes in various colors, so you can coordinate with your workout partner or crew before hitting the trail. 

It’s good for your brain

If you’ve noticed yourself feeling calmer after a walk in the woods, you’re not alone. A 2015 study out of Stanford University found that a 90-minute walk in nature reduced activity in parts of the brain associated with anxiety and depression. “There is a positive association between nature-based activity and mental health,” Martin says. The effect is so pronounced that in the 1980s, the Japanese government started encouraging people to walk through forests for their health, coining the term shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” They’ve since designated 62 zones as “forest therapy” sites after seeing reductions in participants’ blood pressure and stress levels. If you usually do yoga or meditate, swapping in a hiking session can have similar stress-busting effects. 

It can fit any goal 

Trails vary in difficulty by length, elevation change, and roughness of terrain, so there’s options to fit every level of hiker. For those just getting started on their fitness goals, hiking is a great way to begin weight loss, or just kickstart some positive cardiovascular changes. For more experienced athletes, hiking can help you recover from intense workouts and prevent lactic acid buildup. It’s also an effective method of cross-training, allowing you to develop endurance in a more laid-back setting than on the treadmill at the gym.

It scales easily 

Since a hike can mean anything from a walk in the park to climbing Half Dome, there will always be a next step to keep pushing yourself toward. Adding mileage is straightforward — just find a longer trail, repeat a loop, or commit to multiple hikes a week. “New hikers should start with trails that are anywhere from 1-3 miles and relatively flat,” Martin says. “I’d recommend increasing distance on flat trails before trying trails with greater elevation” since it’s easier to gauge the difficulty of distance than uneven terrain. If you want to increase the overall difficulty while emphasizing muscle building, the final step is to add weight, usually via a backpack or even a weight vest

It’s socially distanced 

The sudden surge of mountaintop Instagram posts from your previously indoorsy friends is for a reason. Hiking is as socially distanced an exercise as you can get, and exploring nearby nature can be helpful to your mental health while normal travel is limited. If you’ve been feeling especially cooped up, lethargic, or confined in your city, hiking might just be the solution. With any luck, you’ll find picturesque trails that will be part of your fitness routine for years to come.

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