A getaway in the woods can improve your fitness, balance, and mood.
Walking is great exercise, but sometimes you need a break from your usual neighborhood loop or the monotony of the basement treadmill.
Go for a hike instead. It’s similar to walking, but it can give you a boost as well as a dose of novelty and adventure. And not only is hiking great exercise, it’s a COVID-safe activity that doesn’t require a lot of gear.
Reap physical benefits
Navigating a winding, wooded trail can help your body build endurance, strength and coordination, says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
Hiking on uneven terrain requires more energy than walking on a flat surface, so it burns more calories. If you’re hiking uphill, your body has to work even harder, he says. Rigorous hiking can provide many of the same physical benefits as interval training, which alternates low- and high-intensity exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness. When hiking, your heart rate increases as you ascend an incline and decreases as you descend.
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Crossing an uneven landscape can also build strength.
“You use different muscles when going up and down,” says Phillips.
If you haven’t been hiking lately, you’ll probably feel it in your hips and butt on the way up and in your thighs on the way down.
“The descent works the muscles in the front of your thighs, which have to work like a brake to keep you stable,” he says.
Finding your footing on a rutted trail can help you become more stable on your feet.
“When you challenge your body, it will adapt. For example, if the terrain challenges your balance, it will push your internal balance system to improve,” says Phillips.
Improve mind and mood
The benefits of hiking are not just physical; they are also mental.
Humans thrive when they’re in a natural setting, Phillips says. Just being among the trees can improve a number of health indicators. Research has shown that the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”), which encourages a slow enjoyment of nature, produces measurable physical changes.
A 2019 study in the International Journal of Biometeorology found that the practice reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the blood. A 2011 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology noted its beneficial effects on blood pressure and potentially on blood sugar.
Being in nature also exposes you to new sights and experiences. The view from the same trail changes throughout the year as the trees grow or lose their leaves.
The best thing about hiking is that it often doesn’t feel like exercise.
“Some people who avoid exercise will happily go hiking,” says Phillips. And because they like it, they’re more likely to stick with it.
Destination hikes even provide their own motivation to keep you going.
“If you ever want to hook someone up hiking, go to Acadia National Park in Maine. A one-hour hike there can take you up to 400 feet to a peak where you’ll have panoramic views of the ocean below,” says Phillips.
How to start
While hiking can be safely accommodated for many fitness levels, there are some things you should do to prepare before you go, Phillips says.
1. Start slowly.
If you have never hiked before, do not attempt to climb a steep mountain. The flat trails provide a great starting point.
Look for local rail trails, which are flat paths of stone dust or another soft surface. They run along old railway beds where the tracks used to be. This is a great place for beginners who always take you into nature.
You can also use a smartphone app or an online trail guide to find local routes suited to your level of ability.
2. Bring a buddy.
It’s safest to hike with a friend, ideally someone who knows the area.
3. Do your research.
Plan your route and know what terrain to expect before you set off. Also, make sure your cell phone will work in your chosen area so you can get emergency help if you need it.
4. Stop halfway.
When hiking, hike only about half the distance you want to hike. Remember that you must always travel back to your starting point.
5. Bring the right supplies.
In addition to sturdy shoes, bring a hat and sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun, enough water to stay hydrated, insect repellent and a small first aid kit.
6. Be flexible.
Don’t feel like you have to hit a certain speed or distance goal. Adapt to the conditions you encounter on the trail.
7. Strengthen your balance.
If you need a little extra balance, hiking poles can be a great solution, says Phillips. They can be found at most outdoor supply stores and can give your arms a mini-workout as you hike.
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