What if I told you that there was a cure for heart disease, weight gain, insomnia, stress, memory loss, insecurity, and loneliness. That this “thing” can provide these benefits in as little as five minutes a day. Most people would jump at something so miraculous. And yet, only 18% of Americans in 2021 did this “thing” in 2021 even once, let alone regularly. That thing is hiking.
Hiking is that beneficial. The physical benefits obviously come first and foremost through the fact it is walking on steroids. Even light hiking can raise your heart rate which improves cardiovascular health and the markers associated with it like blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. It also improves balance, builds muscle and increases bone density – all factors that are associated with aging. The more strenuous the hike, the more it keeps your body youthful.
But mental health is where hiking is more beneficial than a typical walk around the neighborhood. Nature and the trail team up to boost your mental health in some fascinating ways. First, researchers at Stanford proved that walking in the woods had the benefit of calming an area of the brain associated with depression, anxiety and rumination that walking in an urban area did not. Trees also give off chemicals, phytoncides, that have been shown to increase cells that ward off cancer. There is an entire form of medicine emerging called “Forest Medicine” that involves spending more time around trees. Hiking is a great way to do that. Research has also shown that hiking, like other outdoor exercise, improves self-esteem and confidence.
Hiking also can be a great way to meet people and build community, an antidote to loneliness, something the former Surgeon General of the United States says is one of our biggest public health problems. If you don’t have a friend to hike with, numerous hiking groups exist at your local REI stores, local conservation organizations like The Trustees of the Reservations in Massachusetts (disclosure: I’m on the advisory board), state and national parks, and online resources like Hike It Baby (for parents and kids) and Meetup.
If you get really serious, there are organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club that maintain “huts” where you can stay and sleep as you hike over multiple days. There are also global, famous hiking destinations aligned towards solo and small group travelers. When my son and I hiked Mt. Olympus, we stayed at the hostel that is located three-quarters of the way up the mountain, a perfect distance for that first day and to rest prior to hiking to the summit the next day. It was simple dormitory style lodging, but had good food, cold beer and wifi. I have several friends actively hiking El Camino de Santiago right now in Spain and Portugal which offers a range of options, a destination that is absolutely on my hiking bucket list.
So it’s Saturday. Yes, I know you are busy and didn’t plan to take a hike. But I encourage you to find the woods and trail closest to you, even if it’s just a short 5-10 minute path, and just go. You will be happier, and healthier, because you did.
Quote of the Week: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”John Muir