One of the many benefits of hiking is that it is a healthy form of exercise. But when people talk about hiking and how it makes them feel good, it often goes beyond that. People talk about spectacular views, fresh air or getting away from screens. Some people even talk about a hike in the mountains as a kind of spiritual experience. Perhaps these are some of the reasons that wilderness therapy has become more popular and can be very effective. (Along with good therapeutic techniques from trained professionals.) But what exactly makes hiking so healthy? Are there scientific reasons beyond exercise and fresh air that make it healthy?
Yes, yes there are.
Being in Nature
Many of us feel good when we’re out in nature, but what effect does it have on the body? There have been many studies looking at different effects of being outside on the human body. One study in Japan showed that when people went to a forest, they had a lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure. Lower sympathetic nerve activity ( the “fight-or-flight” part of the nervous system) and higher parasympathetic nerve activity ( the part of the nervous system that relaxes the body.) Studies have shown that being in nature can help alleviate stress and ADHD, and improve creativity and even eyesight. Being outside is also important for your body to be able to make vitamin D from the sun. So if you feel mentally stored and calmer after your hike, it’s not just your imagination. These studies have shown that the positive effect that nature can have on us is real.
Why Hiking is Different From Other Forms Of Exercise
There are several reasons why hiking can be different from other forms of exercise. The uneven terrain and the incline, even a small incline, can make a difference. They make your body work harder and improves your balance. You can always go at your own pace and decide your own skill level but whether you like intense hikes or fairly mild ones, you will receive these benefits. If you go hiking somewhere high, you can also get a great cardiovascular workout from the higher altitude. At higher altitudes, there is less oxygen so we must breathe deeper to get more oxygen to our organs and hard-working muscles. And more oxygen is always a good thing for your mind and body. An extra perk is that if you spend enough time in high elevations your body will become acclimated and your lungs will be able to take in more oxygen.
Hiking is also an excellent form of endurance training that can improve stamina and perhaps long distance training. Many hikes take several hours or even a whole day to complete and people who love it are OK with that. We tend to stick to exercises that we enjoy or that make us feel good so for some people, it’s an easy way to build endurance. One study showed that hikers got both a better workout and enjoyed it more than people who worked out on a treadmill with an incline to imitate the conditions of hiking. And did you know that humans are built for long distance? Our upright posture, large gluteal muscles and our ability to cool off through sweating make us powerful long distance machines. Even though four-legged animals are faster by far, we can outdistance many other species. Hiking could help build your natural ability to go long distances.
Being With Other People
There is yet another health benefit of hiking that you might not have considered. When you go hiking with friends, you could also get health benefits just from being with other people. These include getting better sleep, building a strong immune system, fighting off depression, and living longer. A study at Brigham Young University showed that the effect of being social goes both ways. When you have positive social relationships, it has a positive effect on longevity and there is a negative effect without them. In a world where we might miss out on positive social and emotional connections with too much texting or communicating through social media, going on a hike with people could be a great way to get to know people or build stronger relationships. One last reason that hiking is so healthy: It is a great way to experience all of these positive effects at the same time! With just one trip up the hills with friends, you can get a great workout, benefit from being outside and build relationships that could help you live longer. This is one of the reasons hiking can be so powerful; it is healthy mentally, emotionally, physically and socially.
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