Hiking for Health

Hiking for Health

Instead of meeting your friends for brunch or at Starbucks this weekend, why not get together for a hike? It’s cheaper and less fattening and will lift your spirits more than a caramel macchiato. Or just lace up your hiking shoes and head out by yourself for a peaceful, meditative outdoor excursion. According to the American Hiking Society, hiking is the easiest and least expensive outdoor recreation activity.

That’s not to say it’s always just a walk in the park (which, come to think of it, is actually easier and cheaper than hiking). You’ll definitely get your heart pounding if the trail has some elevation gain. And even at a casual pace of two miles per hour, a 150-pound person will burn 240 calories in an hour. As with most sports, you can hike at different intensities to raise or lower your workout level.

Best of all, you can hike all year round, even in the winter. With the introduction of snow and ice traction devices such as Yaktrax, cleats that attach to the bottom of your shoes, hikers can enjoy the outdoors without fear of slipping or sliding.

Benefits of Hiking

Although it’s been widely proven that regular exercise can increase a person’s physical and mental health and result in a longer life, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that only 15 percent of the U.S. adult population engages in sufficient physical activity. Perhaps it’s because the idea of sweating in a gym or running around the park seems daunting and unappealing to most people. But vigorous exercise doesn’t have to be boring or painful. Hiking can help you lose weight, improve your physical well-being, reduce tension and enhance your mental health.

For women, regular hiking can help prevent osteoporosis. Working against the force of gravity helps increase bone density and slows calcium loss, thus strengthening bones and making them less susceptible to breaking. And believe it or not, trails are gentler on the joints than pavement.

The change in elevation and varying terrain helps build balance and coordination. If you really want to get your heart rate going, add a 10- to 15-pound pack to increase calories burned by 10 to 15 percent.

The mental health benefits of hiking are just as bountiful as the physical. Exposure to natural bright light, which you certainly can’t get in a gym, increases levels of serotonin (a mood-lifting chemical) in the brain. Because exercise also boosts serotonin production, the benefit is twofold.

Karen Berger, an avid hiker and the author of 10 books on hiking and backpacking, says she loves seeing the change of seasons. “You get to enjoy the outdoors and the beauty of the seasons, waterfalls, animals and so much more. Plus you get a workout,” she says.

And she never brings a cell phone. Hiking is a great way to get uninterrupted time with someone. “There are no cell phones, computers, radios, phones or kids to distract you,” says Berger. “You’re out in the woods, and it’s just you and that person. That is a really nice reason to go for a hike.”

Some hikers do like to bring a cell phone along for safety reasons, though, even if they never turn it on.

Greg Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, agrees with Berger on the benefits of hiking with a partner. “You tend to interact in a constructive and positive way,” Miller says. “That’s an exciting element of hiking.”

How to Get Started

You might think hiking is only for those who live in the mountains or backwoods, but almost everyone has a hiking trail near their home. The Appalachian Trail, for example, runs about 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine and is within a one- or two-hour drive from any city on the East Coast outside Florida. Even New York City has a number of groups that organize hiking trips every weekend.

Check local hiking clubs in your area or local chapters of the Sierra Club or the Appalachian Mountain Club in the Northeast. Local outfitters such as REI or Eastern Mountain Sports are always a good source of information. Most people who work there are outdoor enthusiasts themselves and usually know of or lead hiking trips.

The American Hiking Society offers a wealth of information on its Website, including trail safety tips, state-by-state hiking club listings and a list of top trails in the country. The Long Path just outside New York City, for example, is a top trail that runs 350 miles from Fort Lee, NJ, to Middleburgh, NY.

What to Bring

You most likely have everything you need to get started in your closet, except maybe a good pair of hiking shoes. Hiking shoes or boots should be comfortable, sturdy, waterproof and, most importantly, broken in before you take them on the trail. If you’re going for a short hike, you don’t have to worry about water, layers or rain protection. But if you’re going for an hour or longer, always bring the following:

  • Rain gear
  • An extra layer in case the temperature dips
  • Hat for sun protection and, when necessary, warmth
  • Day pack
  • Water
  • Snack(s)
  • Sunscreen

Other important items, depending on the length and area of your hike, include:

  • Trash bags to use as shelter or ground cover in case of rain
  • Pocket knife
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Insect repellent

Berger is a fan of walking sticks, especially for the descent. “I strongly recommend them for hilly terrain and winter hiking,” she says. “In the winter they help you with balance and to find non-slippery ground. When you’re going downhill, they can take a lot of stress off your knees, especially for people who are a few pounds overweight.”

She advises hikers to check the weather report but to be prepared for a change in temperature. A map is essential, she says, especially if you’re not familiar with the area. Mole skin or bandages are good items to have on hand in case of blisters.

“I don’t want people to feel like they have to be outfitted to climb Mount Everest,” Berger says. “I just want them to be safe and dry.”

Obviously for winter hiking, additional layers, gloves and a wool hat will keep you toasty while you enjoy the outdoors. Traction devices such as Yaktrax and Stabilicers will keep you steady on your feet.

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