When I relocated to Denver in July, I was so excited to explore the trails that I couldn’t wait for the weekends. As soon as the clock hit 5 p.m. on a workday, I’d close my laptop, put on my backpack, and head for the hills—literally.
Prior to my move to Denver, I found solace in leisurely strolling around the nearby shopping center with my dog in the evenings. No more. Now that I’ve experienced the joy of an after-work hike in the Flatirons, my simple strolls around the neighborhood feel a bit mundane. And I’m not the only one swapping my treadmill walks for hikes. Katie Gassman has amassed over 32,000 followers on her @hotgirlhikes TikTok account dedicated to championing the benefits of spending time outdoors; she also arranges group attractive lady hikes for those seeking female companions to venture alongside.
Experts In This Article
- Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, CSAT-S, licensed clinical psychologist and author of No Perfect Love
- Edward Phillips, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast
- Mike Dow, PsyD, psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author of The Brain Fog Fix, Healing the Broken Brain, and Diet Rehab
And as it turns out, there’s substantial scientific evidence behind why we yearn for time on the trails. Edward Phillips, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast, explains that hiking provides all the physical and mental advantages of walking—and more.
“There are wonderful benefits to your mind to offset depression, anxiety—all of those things just from going on a brief walk,” Phillips explains. “So you get all of those benefits and then, as the old commercials used to say: Wait, there’s more.”
What’s the distinction between walking and hiking?
It’s fair to say that the line is not always clear. According to Phillips, the differentiation often lies in the intention and preparation. If you don’t put much thought into what shoes to wear, what path to take, whether the weather might change, or if you need to carry food and water, you’re probably going for a walk.
On the other hand, if you don sturdy trail-ready shoes, pack extra layers, plan to traverse uneven terrain, and analyze your route beforehand, then it’s likely a hike.
Hikes are not restricted by a specific distance or altitude, Phillips asserts. But they often involve exploring new areas and being surrounded by nature. The fantastic thing about hiking? It can be as leisurely or as adventurous as you desire—either way, you’ll enjoy the benefits.
What are the advantages of hiking versus walking?
Walking is the most widespread form of physical activity globally, and for good reason. It offers longevity, bone strength, cardiovascular health benefits, and brain health. Walking can enhance your immune system, alleviate joint discomfort, lower the risk of breast cancer, and even diminish your desire for sugary treats, according to Harvard Medical School. But when you turn that walk into a hike, you receive all of those benefits and more.
1. Hiking challenges your heart and leg muscles
Trekking along a rolling trail serves as nature’s own interval training, Phillips explains. Hikes frequently feature various uphill and downhill sections, resulting in a natural fluctuation in exertion. “You’re going to work harder going up. Your heart rate is going to rise. Your breathing is going to increase, and then when you’re coming down, you have a chance to relax a little bit,” he elaborates.
This variability in incline demands more from your muscles compared to a typical stroll around the community’s retention pond. Your glutes engage to help you conquer the uphill stretches, while your quads come into play on the descent, functioning as your body’s natural brakes, as per Phillips. And these changes in incline don’t have to be drastic: Even gentle slopes can engage muscles that remain dormant during a flat walk.
2. Hiking can enhance your equilibrium
Since hiking often occurs on slightly rugged terrain compared to your residential sidewalk, it serves as an excellent means to challenge your balance. Every movement you make during a hike, from stepping over a large rock to traversing a log, conditions your body to maintain its stability under various circumstances. “And the more you challenge any system in your body, the more your body is going to adapt and improve,” Phillips emphasizes. So if you find yourself stumbling along a trail littered with loose stones or accidentally taking a dip in a babbling brook, don’t worry. Your next woodland excursion will likely go more smoothly.
3. Hiking can boost happiness and alleviate stress
Possibly surpassing the physical benefits of hiking are the mental advantages. Research indicates that individuals who spend meaningful time in nature report heightened levels of happiness, positive social interactions, and a sense of purpose in life, as per the American Psychological Association. And these effects are more pronounced than those experienced by individuals walking in urban settings: A 2015 study indicated that compared to those walking in urban environments, people who strolled in nature exhibited reduced anxiety, less rumination, and diminished activity in a brain region associated with depression.
Even the patterns observed in nature on the trails can have a calming effect, according to Field Trip Health psychotherapist Mike Dow, PsyD, author of The Brain Fog Fix, previously conveyed to Well+Good. “Cities are comprised of sharp angles from structures, which the subconscious can perceive as threats, triggering spikes in adrenaline and cortisol levels,” he explains. “Walking in nature exposes you to fractals, the soothing shapes that constitute the universe (such as seashells, snowflakes, and trees), allowing for a natural increase in serotonin levels.”
Phillips encourages hikers to explore the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” a type of mobile meditation in which you focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural environment around you, rather than engaging in idle chatter about the latest workplace gossip. Studies indicate that decelerating to absorb the natural environment during a hike can induce a more relaxed state.
4. Hiking can strengthen relationships
Individuals often invite friends to join them on hikes, both for safety and enjoyment. Walking a few miles in the woods with your loved ones can foster meaningful relationships. For instance, a study at the University of California, Irvine, revealed that sharing a sense of wonder outdoors can bring people closer to each other.
Hiking can also facilitate conversations. “You are often more concerned about your breath as you walk up an incline, or focused on the beautiful surroundings, and communication may flow easier,” psychologist Alyson Nerenberg previously conveyed to Well+Good regarding the relationship benefits of hiking.
Not in the mood for conversation? According to Phillips, even hiking in silence with another person can foster a sense of connection.
It doesn’t take much
While all these physical and mental perks might inspire you to scale the nearest peak, just know that like attractive lady walks, attractive lady hikes don’t have to be extreme to harness all the advantages. Although longer hikes may offer deeper rewards. “We know the benefits are dose-dependent,” Dr. Dow points out. “Having a long, unstructured, and meditative period of time in nature can better rebalance your neurotransmitter levels as you transition from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode.”
That said, you probably want to leave Kilimanjaro to the professionals. Simply head to whichever trail near you feels accessible and ignites your own sense of adventure.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Bratman, Gregory N et al. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 112,28 (2015): 8567-72. doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112
Bratman, Gregory N et al.
“The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition.”
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- Miyazaki, Yoshifumi et al. Nihon eiseigaku zasshi. Japanese journal of hygiene vol. 66,4 (2011): 651-6. doi:10.1265/jjh.66.651
- Piff, Paul K., et al. ‘Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 6, American Psychological Association (APA), June 2015, pp. 883–899, doi:10.1037/pspi0000018