Benefits of hiking

8 May 2019

The great outdoors is a powerful place. In this modern era where we crave moments of calm and seek out opportunities to de-stress, going for a hike can be a great way to do both and improve our overall health at the same time. While yoga is well known for its combination of physical and mental health benefits, it’s often missing the magic ingredients that hiking offers – fresh air and nature. According to Google trends, the interest in hiking in the UK has been increasing in popularity over recent years and with more people giving it a go, it’s good to know the benefits, and precautions to take, before you pull on your walking boots and head outdoors1.

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So, what are the key benefits of hiking?

  1. It’s a fantastic way to improve cardiovascular health and give your whole body a good workout. AXA PPP healthcare physiologist, Sarah Kemp, highlights that “because hiking is across undulating terrains, we have to use our stabiliser muscles and the upper body really comes in to play. Hiking offers a much more full bodied workout than walking, especially with a hilly route, as it’s stressing the cardiovascular system while also working your glutes (bottom muscles) and quads (upper leg muscles) to manage the terrain”. While walking is great, the varying nature of hiking means it works the body harder and is more challenging, meaning a hike up a hill is more beneficial than a jaunt around the block!
  2. The mental health benefits of hiking are plentiful. A study carried out in 2009 at the University of Rochester shows that humans prefer to be surrounded by natural environments.2 Gladwell et al. highlight that “nature provides an environment that does not require our direct attention, giving nature restorative properties therefore allowing recovery from mental fatigue and attention restoration”.3 Ultimately, partaking in physical activity outside in the fresh air is good for our mental health; it allows us to de-stress and reduces the risks of depression and the feelings of anxiety. Sarah says “as humans we’re naturally drawn to outdoor spaces, with hiking providing a cathartic experience”. Add in switching off from technology and putting the world to rights with your hiking companion as you go, and you can see how going on a hike can have hugely positive impacts on our mental health.
  3. Bone health is also supported with hiking due to the activity’s low impact on bones, as it doesn’t stress the joints in the same way as running does, making it an ideal activity later in life when bone density  natural starts to decrease.
  4. It’s very inclusive. Hiking is a physical activity appropriate for a huge range of people, more so than exercises with a higher impact like running, which may not be suitable for those who are losing bone density or have mobility issues.
  5. It’s always available – and free! The outdoors never goes away and the possibilities of where to explore are endless. If you live in a built up area, there are usually a few options if you’re prepared to travel a few miles out of town.
  6. It can also be a very sociable form of exercise. Going with others, be that a partner, a friend, a hiking group or the whole family, can make it an enjoyable form of exercise, which means you’re more likely to stick at it.
  7. It’s important to keep your exercise regime varied to avoid getting stuck in a rut and Sarah suggests hiking as an alternative exercise for regular gym goers who feel their routine may have plateaued a little. “Hiking can be a great alternative to build up your strength in a different way to being in the gym. A 30 minute hike on active recovery days would be enough to flush out the built up lactic acid in your lower body muscles”.
  8. It’s a really adaptable form of exercise. Whether you want a short, flatter 30 minute hiking route or (are physically fit enough for!) a four hour hike in the hills that really tests your fitness, hiking is something that everyone can take on. Plus, carrying a rucksack means you can add in some extra weight safely to really up the benefits.

While hiking offers a multitude of benefits, there are also precautions to take, especially if you’re new to it, have not exercised in a long time or have muscular or joint problems.

  1. Be realistic. As with any new form of exercise, don’t overestimate your capabilities. Start small and build up your distances or the type of terrain. This way you’ll help to prevent injury and not be put off from the first try.
  2. Set goals. To keep it challenging and give yourself something to work towards. Break things down into manageable chunks and remember to celebrate each time you go a bit further or a little rockier, you deserve the recognition!
  3. Plan your route. This is really important. Not only so you don’t spend valuable hiking time trying to navigate your way, but for your safety and so that you know you're undertaking a route suitable for your ability. Maps are a great way to physically plan your route and you can take them with you (without relying on GPS!) to make sure you're going to right way. The AXA Active Plus site has walking maps and guides for your area as well as a range of equipment.
  4. Tell someone. If you’re going alone, make sure others know where you’re going. If you get lost or injured (and don’t get any service on the phone you’ll no doubt take for emergencies like that!) it’s vital someone knows where you are.
  5. Take rest breaks. Hiking can be a really rigorous form of exercise so making sure you take breaks is crucial – you don’t want to get half way through and be absolutely exhausted! But if you are really working up a sweat, do be cautious when taking off a rucksack, as the rapid cooling down could cause a severe chill.
  6. Check the weather forecast. It may be fine when you set off but the weather can change rapidly, making it difficult to navigate and walking conditions treacherous.

So if you’re ready to go for a hike, there are a few things we recommend for your kit:

  • Hiking boots: be sure to break them in before you head off for hours,  otherwise you won’t get too far! Sarah recommends to “start off small, on local and familiar terrain in order to break them in”. Having a good, sturdy pair of walking shoes is really important for protecting your ankles and providing sufficient grip over varying terrains.
  • Water: Keeping hydrated is of the upmost importance with any exercise. Be sure to take plenty of water and a little extra, just in case you don’t quite follow the map as intended!
  • Appropriate clothing: make sure it’s comfortable to walk in, breathable and appropriate for any weather. Pack a raincoat even if it’s due to be a sunny day – being caught in a downpour without a waterproof certainly won’t help with the mindful moments you’re looking for!
  • Sunscreen: because exercising outside means sun exposure. Don’t forget to apply before you go and top up if you’re on a longer hike or day out.
  • A phone: not to be on, but as a safety net if something does go a little pear shaped.
  • High energy snacks: to keep your energy levels topped up as you go, and to have as a breather when enjoying the view!

As we can see, hiking is a great way to help boost our physical and mental wellbeing and support a healthy lifestyle. Partaking in exercise like hiking that so effectively works both physical and mental health is a great way to workout your entire body and there are so many benefits to it - just be prepared, be realistic, enjoy being outside and get your body moving!

If you’re inspired to try hiking, why not let us know by sharing your hiking photos on your favourite social media platform and tag us @AXAPPPhealthcare!

Further reading

Osteoporosis and bone health - AXA PPP healthcare
Tips to delay dementia and boost your brain power - AXA PPP healthcare
Exercise and mental health benefits - AXA PPP healthcare
Health benefits of walking - AXA PPP healthcare
Tips to boost the health benefits of walking - AXA PPP healthcare
Benefits of group exercise - AXA PPP healthcare
Exercise and fitness hub - AXA PPP healthcare

References

Instagram Hiking Report UK, Sports Shoes.com, 11th October 2018.
Weinstein et al. Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity. 2009.
3  Gladwell et al.: The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013 2:3.

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