If you hate the thought of exercise but love the great outdoors, hiking might be the perfect way to get in shape and boost your long-term health.
Hiking lets you get in shape without spending a fortune. Beyond footwear, start-up costs are minimal.
“Hiking has few barriers to entry,” says Wesley Trimble, program outreach and communications manager at the American Hiking Society.
You just need a supportive pair of shoes or boots – and a bookbag with a few essentials, such as water and a first-aid kit – and you are ready for your first hike, Trimble says.
“There’s no gym membership requirement,” he says.
And unlike a treadmill at the gym, hiking can provide spectacular scenery as you work out.
How hiking boosts your health
Hiking also offers many health benefits. Recent studies have found a host of physiological and psychological benefits associated with hiking, Trimble says. They include a reduced risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease and stroke
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colon and breast cancer
This type of exercise also helps boost overall cardiorespiratory fitness, can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and strengthens your bones.
Hiking also improves mental health. A 2015 Stanford University study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a wilderness setting showed decreased activity in a part of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
“Time spent walking in nature has been associated with reducing depression and anxiety, as well as improving memory,” Trimble says.
If you have joint pain or arthritis, hiking might be an ideal form of exercise.
“Walking and hiking can potentially reduce joint pain and improve function for many adults with arthritis,” Trimble says.
How much hiking do you need?
To get a measurable health benefit, you will need to hike for about 150 minutes weekly at a moderate intensity. If you prefer, 75 minutes of hiking at a vigorous intensity – such as hiking uphill or with a weighted backpack – should give you an equivalent benefit.
Hitting the trail consistently and for longer periods of time will produce quicker results, Trimble says.
“I've talked with many hikers who have set out to hike a long-distance trail, and many report the most fitness gain in the first two weeks,” he says.
Trimble says that although the human body adapts well to a new hiking regimen, it is best to start out slow and build up your fitness level before tackling longer hikes.
“Setting out too fast or too frequently without the proper buildup can lead to injury,” he says.
Finding the motivation to start
Americans are notoriously reluctant to exercise, so getting started with hiking might not be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.
Pairing up with a hiking buddy can boost your odds of getting out on the trail successfully.
“Heading out with a friend or someone with experience is a great way to experience a new and unfamiliar trail or park, and the best way to feel confident out on the trail,” Trimble says.
The American Hiking Society also provides resources that can help you get started. Trimble recommends new hikers read the 10 essentials of hiking, which include everything from a map and compass to sunscreen and safety items.
He also suggests learning the principles of “leave no trace,” which encourage hikers to reduce their environmental footprint when hiking.
Many outdoor retailers and clubs also offer group hikes and classes to help new hikers learn important skills, such as wayfinding and navigation. The American Hiking Society has an Alliance of Hiking Organizations across the country. These organizations can help connect you with fellow hikers at the local level.