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The many health benefits of hiking

21 July, 2016

There’s no doubt that consistent physical activity has positive effects on your health. Along with lowering your risk for certain diseases and health conditions, physical activity helps you reduce body fat and maintain a healthy body weight. 

There are many different types of physical activities you can choose to partake in, but for all round wellbeing you really can’t go past hiking. 

What makes hiking so beneficial? 

Hiking is something that can be enjoyed by men, women and children of all ages. It gets you outside and enjoying your natural surroundings. It offers fresh air, a chance to discover nature’s wonders, and enjoyable exercise that will have you feeling motivated and energised. 

Whether hiking up a mountain trail or along flat country paths, hiking can help you burn hundreds of calories in less than an hour. According to Harvard Health, hiking burns nearly 532 calories per hour for a 83kg (185 pound) person. When you consider an hour walking 5kms on the gym treadmill burns just 106 calories, it’s clear that hiking (especially hikes that take on hills) can crunch calories significantly faster than walking inside your gym. 

The reason for this comes down to predictability. 

A concrete path that takes you on a stroll around the block rarely changes. Similarly, a treadmill is a flat and predictable surface. You can adjust the incline slightly, but it’s still fairly easy to propel your body forward. This lack of a consistent challenge reduces the amount of effort your workout requires, which in turn minimises your overall calorie burn. 

However, when hiking, your entire body is constantly engaged. You are using your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, lower back and thighs as you navigate the obstacles of the terrain. Every log you climb over or ditch you jump to avoid is challenging your body in a way that a treadmill never could. 

But let’s forget about calories for a sec. There are plenty of other benefits hiking can offer you that you may never have considered before. 

Sun exposure

Hiking exposes you to sunlight, effectively supplying your body with Vitamin D which is essential for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D is created as your body responds to UVB rays, making sun exposure an important part of your health needs. More than this, studies have shown moderate sun exposure can: 

  • Enhance mood and energy through the release of endorphins.
  • Treat skin diseases such as psoriasis, dermatitis, acne and scleroderma.
  • Synchronise important biorhythms that regulate body temperature and help reset your circadian rhythms.
  • Disinfect and heal wounds.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Cleanse the blood and blood vessels.
  • Increase the production of white blood cells to strengthen the immune system.
  • Cure or relieve depression.

Improved focus 

According to researchers from the Frontiers of Ageing Neuroscience, “Walking at one’s own pace for 40 minutes three times a week can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat declines in brain function associated with ageing and increase performance on cognitive tasks”. Having tracked participants for over a year, the team discovered that the more active people were, the better their cognitive function and focus. 

The opportunity to escape rumination 

Rumination is defined by psychologist? As a repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self. Examples of rumination include spending lots of time thinking back over embarrassing or disappointing moments, or rehashing things you’ve recently said or done. 

Researchers have found that by taking yourself on a nature hike you can reduce rumination and blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. Lead author of the study, Gregory Bratman, believes this shows the importance of immersing yourself in nature, especially in a more urbanised world. Hiking essentially prevents negative, obsessive thoughts from forming that lead to anxiety and depression. 

Bratman also suggests that hiking could be the key to evolutionary happiness, stating “being in a natural environment taps into an unconscious part of ourselves that is predisposed from ancient times to thrive in natural settings - a happy home we once knew, but now miss given our urban lifestyles.” 

Boosts creative problem solving 

A study conducted by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. The researchers found that by switching off from technology and going for four hour hikes, a person's performance on problem-solving tasks improved by 50%. 

The researchers of this study also noted that both technology and urban noise are incredibly disruptive as they constantly demand our attention and prevent us from focusing, all of which can lead to mental fatigue. A nice long hike takes the pressure off cognitive functions and soothes the mind. 

Reduced ADHD symptoms 

A study conducted by Frances E Kup, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduces their symptoms significantly. Their research suggests that for any person having a difficult time focusing or exhibiting impulsive behaviour, hiking can work far better than some prescribed medicines. 

Prevents memory loss 

Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume - the part of the brain associated with spatial and episodic memory - in women over the age of 70. Therefore aerobic exercise not only improves memory loss, but helps prevent it too. 

Social benefits 

Participating in a hike with others gives you an opportunity to meet and build relationships with them. Connecting with people who share your love of the great outdoors can help you form lifelong friendships.  

Builds muscle in your legs 

Quadriceps - the muscles at the front of the thighs - are the primary muscles used for hiking. When hiking, all portions of the quadricep muscles are engaged, allowing you to propel yourself forward during steps or strides. Hamstrings work in conjunction with your quads, allowing you to flex the knee and transfer each foot. Calves are also engaged, but will undergo changing levels of use. Hiking uphill with a heavy backpack will strengthen your calves engagement. In other words, hiking is an awesome leg workout! 

How to start hiking 

Lucky for you, hiking is one of the easiest and least expensive sports to get involved in. The whole family can get involved - even Grandma! Start out small (a trail through the park for example) to test your abilities, and gradually build up to more inclines and tougher terrain. You may wish to take your phone in case of an emergency, but be sure to switch it off unless you really need it. Make sure you have some good sturdy hiking shoes, a hat and a water bottle, and be sure to layer your clothing. You may want to consider investing in some trekking poles too, which will help take pressure off your knees. 

Once you’re all set to go, check out our guide to the Best Hiking Trails in Australia.

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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