Hiking is not just an enjoyable activity. It can also offer you a variety of valuable benefits that could make hiking (even) more worth it.
These benefits range from more general positive effects of exercise to more specific reasons why hiking can be such a great choice.
1. Improves mood and reduces stress more than regular exercise
You may already know that exercise can reduce stress.
However, what not everyone knows is that hiking does this to a larger extent.
The first reason for this is the time you spend in nature. There are studies where they divide participants into different groups, let one group walk in nature, and let one group walk in an urban area.
Additionally, you get the mood benefits of exercising outside that come from the extra sunlight exposure (if you don’t overdo it).
For example, one study divided 46 participants into a sunlight exposure group and a control group. The group that got 30+ minutes of sunlight per day over 4 weeks scored better on mental health tests (7).
More generally, sunlight tends to benefit serotonin and vitamin D levels which are associated with mood improvements (8).
2. Hiking works stabilizers and other muscles
Hiking is typically a cardiovascular workout but it is worth noting that you also work a variety of muscles to a certain extent.
More specifically, hiking works bigger muscles like your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, inner thighs, outer thighs, and to some extent core muscles but also smaller stabilizing muscles around your ankles.
Especially if you wear a heavy backpack or purposefully use outdoor exercise equipment like a weighted vest.
Most people should not expect any actual muscle growth from hiking. For this purpose, it is typically not challenging enough.
That being said, working your muscles can still improve muscle endurance, slow down muscle degradation, and make the muscles healthier.
Improving muscle endurance in the areas mentioned can make daily activities easier and helps you avoid falling.
3. Can improve your cardiovascular health
Your cardiovascular system includes your lungs, heart, and blood vessels. This system is responsible for extracting oxygen from the air and moving the oxygen, nutrients, and waste products to the right places.
When moving more intensely during an activity like hiking, the processes above need to happen to a larger extent. In turn, your cardiovascular system has to work harder.
4. Hiking helps you get more vitamin D
A lot of the more unique benefits of hiking come from spending more time outside. Even when there is a cloudy sky, you tend to get more sunlight outside than inside.
Because your body uses sunlight to make it, this helps increase your vitamin D levels.
More is not always better but when it comes to vitamin D, many people could use a lot more.
This is unfortunate because low levels of vitamin D can lead to weak bones, bad mood, a decrease in cognitive performance, fatigue, etc. (12).
5. Hiking could help you lose weight
To lose weight you need to make it so your body requires more energy to function than is coming in from food. At this point, you start using energy stores like body fat to get the difference.
Hiking helps weight loss because the more intense movements require more energy. This increases your chances of getting to the point above and/or making the difference bigger.
A very rough estimation is that a 155-pound (70 kg) person burns around 286 calories when hiking with a backpack for 30 minutes.
That being said, you should not take these rough estimations too seriously. The MET calculation method does not even take the weight of the backpack or hiking surface into account.
At the same time, this does give you an idea about to what extent hiking can benefit weight loss. Make sure you also pay enough attention to other lifestyle habits like diet to achieve this goal.
6. You can hike together with friends or family
Another benefit of hiking is how easy it is to do with friends, family, and/or other hiking enthusiasts.
During the steepest parts of your hikes, there will likely not be much talking.
However, there is something about doing challenging things and experiencing nature together with other people that strengthens your bonds and makes hiking even more enjoyable.
7. Helps you sleep better
Many people already know how important quality and enough sleep is for things like mood, cognitive performance, and a variety of health areas.
That being said, a lot of people are not entirely sure what they can do to improve these things. Luckily, hiking can help with this in two main ways.
Something more unique to hiking is that the extra sunlight exposure can help regulate your circadian clocks (16).
These are clocks inside your body that regulate the release of sleep hormones like melatonin. Regulating these will make it easier to fall asleep and tends to improve the quality of your sleep.
Lastly, if you go on a hiking trip with overnight camping, this activity helps you avoid artificial lights at the wrong times. These artificial lights can disrupt your circadian clock so avoiding them can benefit sleep.
8. Hiking could improve bone density
This helps you avoid breaking your bones in falls or similar accidents.
Even if you are younger and this is not a concern yet, you want to keep in mind that your actions today influence your future. At later stages in life, it becomes harder to improve bone density.
Improving bone density with something like hiking right now can help you avoid accidents in the future.
If this is a benefit you are really interested in, you can consider hiking with a heavy backpack. This tends to improve bone density more than hiking with just your body weight.
9. Can improve your balance and coordination
Walking or running on a treadmill or other flat surfaces can still offer valuable benefits but these types of activities are definitely somewhat more sterile.
As mentioned before, one effect of the uneven surfaces you experience during hiking is more engagement of stabilizing muscles around your ankles.
Another effect of the uneven surfaces is that hiking tends to improve your balance and coordination skills more than regular walking.
Better balance and coordination can help you avoid missteps and falling in daily activities like walking around and climbing the stairs.
10. You may simply enjoy hiking
Something many people forget is that your choice of exercise should not only be about the number of calories you burn or what muscles you work.
Since you are human, a potential challenge of exercise routines is actually staying consistent with them. If you don’t do the workouts, you don’t get any benefits.
If you enjoy the variety and experience of hiking, it becomes a lot easier to overcome the built-in instincts for energy preservation and stay consistent with your movement routine.
Additionally, enjoying yourself is also a big benefit in itself.
11. Can calm your mind and improve cognitive function
By now it is clear that hiking benefits a variety of areas of mental health. Two areas to add to the list include that hiking can calm your mind and improve cognitive function.
One study divided participants into two groups. The first group did a 90-minute walk in nature whereas the second group did a 90-walk in an urban setting.
They observed that the nature group had less activation of a part of the brain that is associated with repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self than the urban setting group (20).
This is associated with learning things faster, seeing the connection between things faster, and better remembering things.
More unique to hiking is that spending time in nature could benefit this area even more than regular exercise.
That means hiking could benefit things like academic performance and job performance more than certain other forms of exercise.