The Health Benefits of Hiking

This is a guest post from Mitch Stevens, founder and lead guide of Southwest Discoveries. Based out of Tucson, Arizona, Southwest Discoveries offers multi-generational guided tours of the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Horseshoe Bend, the Tortolita Mountains, and more. Visit Southwest Discoveries for more information.

Health benefits of hiking

Benefits of Hiking: 15 Tips To Jump Start Your Path to Longevity Today! 

Hiking BenefitsHealth and Fitness Boosting Strategies

Are you finding if difficult to get motivated about exercise? Does sweating at the gym seem less than appealing? Then hiking is your solution! People who hike on a regular basis enjoy better overall health, markedly less stress and are more energetic in general. All you need to do is start with one of the 15 tips today!

Tip 1: Start Slowly 

Remember to start slowly! This is especially important if you are just getting back into shape. If you are hiking to get in shape, start out with a couple of 10 minute walks in the day and add a few minutes every few days. Plan on going on a more strenuous walk once every weekend. If you are in good shape already, start walking more throughout your day and plan day hikes in your area.

To kick-start your hiking program, carve out at least 30 minutes three to four days per week for hiking. You can increase your frequency later on but just 150 minutes of hiking per week will reap rewards. A recent study in the American Heart Association’s journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology determined that low impact exercises such as hiking can lower your health risks as much as running:

Invest in a sturdy pair of hiking boots and do your research first. Scout out the best places to hike and exercise. Whether you reside in Boulder, Colorado or New York City, there are trails, parks and recreation areas to suit all needs and preferences. Gradually work up to trails with hills or uneven terrain. Then you can gradually start walking farther with heavier loads.

Tip 2: Use Poles

Utilizing hiking poles is an excellent idea. The benefits of hiking poles are that not only do they reduce wear and tear on your joints, but digging into the ground and propelling yourself forward pushes your upper body muscles to work harder and gives you’re a better cardio workout. Thus, you’ll lose more weight and you will reap substantial health benefits such as a reduced risk of heart disease.

Poles also reduce the risk of falling, whether hiking up or downhill. It is a good idea to adjust your poles length so that your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle when hiking uphill or on fairly flat land. When you take a step, plant the pole in the opposite hand behind your trailing foot. With this method you’ll be pushing off each time you plant a pole.

On downhill stretches of any duration, lengthen the poles somewhat and plant the poles out in front of you. For an effective technique when hiking downhill utilizing poles, check out this short video.

Tip 3:  Hike with a Friend or with a Group

While hiking alone is a spiritually renewing and enjoyable experience, trekking can be as social as you like. Moreover, hiking with a friend or a group offers the same soothing feeling and is an excellent opportunity to socialize and exchange ideas with others.

Hiking with a group can feel more like entertainment than exercise and is a great excuse to meet new people. Most every city and town has hiking Meetup groups. These are very active social hiking groups full of diverse people who enjoy hiking with others. Some of the advantages of groups are camaraderie, safety and having a lot of fun out on the trails!

Tip 4:  Bump it Up

Hiking trails offer uneven terrain which will work muscles while improving balance and stability. You can even head off trail for some of your hike as your body becomes more conditioned to rough terrain. This will increase your health benefits exponentially.

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of mortality in the United States. “Walking is one of the best types of ‘medicine’ we have to help prevent diabetes, or reduce its severity and potential complications—such as heart attack and stroke—if you already have it,” says JoAnn Manson, MD, DrPH, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Women who did at least 30 minutes daily of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, slashed their risk of diabetes by 30%, found the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study.

Tip 5:  Head for the Hills

Hiking uphill will intensify your heart rate, burn extra calories and increase your oxygen levels. According to Gregory A. Miller, PhD, president of the American Hiking Club, “Being in nature is ingrained in our DNA, and we sometimes forget that.” Miller says a 5% to 10% incline equals a 30% to 40% increase in calorie burn.

Find a park or an area with hills or mountains and your hiking workout will be ramped up even further. If you combine elevation gain with stepping up your pace, you’ll gain further benefits.  Hike at a pace where you can still carry on a conversation to avoid over doing it. Take frequent and short breaks if necessary.

Health benefits of hikingTip 6:  Hike with Weight in your Pack

According to some studies, a 10- to 15-pound daypack will boost your calorie burn by 10% to 15% while strengthening your lower back muscles. Especially when training for a strenuous hike, work up to it by training with extra weight in your pack. Start off with ten pounds, and then slowly increase the weight in your pack incrementally on a weekly or bi-monthly basis until you reach about thirty to forty pounds. This is especially effective if you’re training for a big hike such as backpacking in the Grand Canyon. For more hiking pointers, see Getting Ready for Desert Hiking:

Tip 7: Get into a Groove

On the days you can’t hike, you can power-walk on just about any terrain while carrying various degrees of weight in a backpack. This will keep your hiking skills and fitness level on track while you maintain a regular exercise program. Like hiking, this is an easy, safe and inexpensive way to achieve great physical fitness.

Other activities to consider when you can’t hit the trail are treadmill walking, elliptical training, cycling, dancing, Pilates, martial arts – the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Tip 8:  Increase your Endurance

It is best to hike at a steady rate, especially when going uphill. It’s important not to push yourself and take frequent, short breaks. Because hiking is an endurance sport, sustain a pace that you can maintain. If you push yourself too hard, you will become fatigued. On steep ascents, stop for a 30 second breather when you require it. Brief stops can provide a surprising degree of physical recovery.

Break up a big day mentally into a series of shorter hikes, identifying where you’ll take rest breaks, to make the total distance feel more manageable. You don’t have to follow a rigid schedule, but having some idea of when you want to reach key spots along the way will prevent a much later finish than hoped for.

Take a ten minute break every hour and elevate your legs over your heart. This will help alleviate fatigue in your legs and pump toxins out of your body. Manage your rest time wisely; you can only push your pace so much.

Tip 9:  Core Training

Core fitness workouts are important for strength, endurance, balance, and stability. It is critical to feeling strong throughout a long hike or run. A strong core helps your body carry a pack—even a light hydration or daypack—conserving energy in the large muscles of your legs to forestall fatigue, and avoid back pain or muscular injuries.

Core training doesn’t require a huge daily time commitment to achieve noticeable results. Three to five days a week, try exercises such as planks and slow bicycle crunches. These are great for strengthening. If you work out in a gym, you can incorporate these exercises into your resistance workout. Fifteen minutes of core work at a time is sufficient.

Health benefits of hikingTip 10:  Best Time for Sun Exposure

Ten to fifteen minutes of sunshine three times weekly is enough to produce your body’s requirement of Vitamin D. The sun needs to shine on the skin of your face, arms, back, or legs (without sunscreen). Because exposure to sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer, use caution. Consider your location when deciding your best time for sun exposure. It is best to avoid the direct sunlight between the hours of 11am to 2pm.

Check out this article on vitamin D: Vitamin D: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

So what are we waiting for!

Tip 11:   Resistance Exercises

The type of exercise program that will benefit your brain is identical to the one that will benefit the rest of your body. Ideally, you’d want to strive for a comprehensive routine that includes high-intensity interval exercise (HIIT), strength training, core work, and regular intermittent movement to avoid the hazards associated with prolonged sitting.

Postpone muscle fatigue during your hike with resistance exercise, lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises such as squats, pushups, dips, and pull-ups strengthens muscles. These exercises provide you power for ascending with a pack on. Do resistance exercises two or three times a week for an hour, developing a routine that targets all of the major muscles.

In the gym, do at least two exercises focused on the legs. Leg lifts and hamstring pulls are excellent ways to increase strength. Your sets should be long enough to temporarily cause you to breathe hard. Body-weight exercises can be done in succession without a break in between. For example, 20 squats and 20 lunges back to back are effective.

Tip 12:  Go Light

Keep your pack as light as possible. Carrying a heavy pack takes a toll on the body and discourages you from hiking far. How can you lighten your load? Compare your usual gear selection with the items on this printable packing checklist.

Do you want more information about how you can better prepare for your hikes?

Request your free copy of this Hiking Preparation Toolkit today.

Tip 13:  Yoga

Daily stretching or yoga will provide your muscles greater range of motion and more strength. Yoga loosens you and allows you to engage the full range of motion in your muscles. This alleviates the tightness associates with carrying a pack on an all day trek.

An example of a great yoga position is the inverted pigeon. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Keep your feet flat on the ground and put your right ankle over your left knee. Slide your right arm through the space made by your legs and clasp hands beneath your left thigh. Gently move your knee straight in towards your chest. Hold this pose for five seconds.

Other good yoga moves are the various tree poses and lunges. Research these online for instructions and examples. You may even want to join a yoga class for more motivation and ideas!

Health benefits of hikingTip 14:  Step Carefully and Take Small Steps

While hiking prolonged steep downhill stretches, a great technique is to make your own little switchbacks in the trail. In other words, walking in a straight path downhill can exert a lot of pressure on your knees and other joints. To less that impact, zigzag slightly down the trail. You can create your own tiny switchbacks in the trail, assuming that you land your feet at an angle to the fall line rather than stepping straight down. It will take a little practice to get the hang of this but you’ll reap significant reward once you grasp this technique.

Moreover, choose your steps carefully. Don’t commit your weight onto small rocks, which tend to be unstable and may move, taking you with it. Only apply weight to stable, comparably flat rocks when hiking downhill. Not only will this reduce the risk of a fall, but the flat rocks will act as natural breaks for your body. This will lessen muscle strain and soreness at the end of the day.

While a long stride will work well on a flat trail, when ascending or descending a much more effective strategy is to take shorter steps. If you bend your knees at shallow angle as opposed to taking big steps up or down, your joints and large muscles will thank you at the end of the day! You’ll work less hard by taking more steps, shortening your stride and lessening the impact on your knees.

Moreover, another benefit to this method when hiking downhill is that you’ll be less likely to slip and fall. When you strike each foot more directly below your center of gravity, rather an ahead of you, you’ll be more stable. In fact, most falls occur when hiking downhill. This is because when we hike uphill, we land with each foot almost directly below our body which is a balance position. But when descending, we tend to land with our feet that is out in front of our body. This can cause your body to become off-balanced.

Tip 15: Drink Plenty of Water and Cover Up

Hydrate often which helps prevent muscle soreness and the effects of the hot sun and high elevations. Make it a habit to drink every 15 to 20 minutes. For strenuous hikes, mix an electrolyte such as Emergen C ( in a liter of water. Drink this quite liberally, especially in the afternoon. By doing this, it’ll insure that you will not develop muscle cramps during your hike. By implementing this strategy and staying hydrated, you’ll be amazed at how much better you will feel!

Invest in lightweight hiking clothes, such as a wide brim hat and long sleeve shirt and long pants. See What to Wear While Hiking

Wrapping it All Up

We talked about how hiking is one of the best forms of exercise and spiritual renewal a person can have. We’ve also shown how a steady hiking program will not only get you in awesome shape but it can provide many ways to stay healthy and avoid illness.

So get started on your hiking plan today and kick-start your journey to longevity!

Here’s to your health!

Happy Trails,

Mitch Stevens

Link to Southwest Discoveries original blog post here.
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Hiking for Fitness, Health Benefits

Cover photo and all additional photos belong to Southwest Discoveries

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