(Words and Photos by Savannah Bulloch)
Every year on November 17th, the world celebrates National Take a Hike Day. This is a day to encourage everyone and their uncle to get out into the wilderness and take a hike. Why go on a hike? Well, hiking is great not only for your body but also for your mental health. And there are many reasons for this - so in this blog post, we will be highlighting both the mental and physical health benefits of hiking and why you should hit the trail to celebrate National Take a Hike Day this year.
First, let's talk about the physical health benefits of hiking.
Hiking is great for your heart and your cardiovascular system.
Going on any type of hike will raise the heart rate, which will help improve aerobic fitness and endurance. This means the more you do it, the more your body will adjust and allow you to hike longer and harder trails. Hiking for just 20 minutes in your day will decrease your heart rate by 5.8%. Along with this, hiking can help improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If you go on regular hikes, long or short, you can improve your glucose tolerance and decrease harmful cholesterol levels. So, if you are looking at improving your heart health, talk to your doctor and head out on the trails!
Hiking is a huge contributor to improving your balance.
Walking on uneven trails will improve your leg and core muscles, which will make your stability and balance better. This is not the main reason, however, for your stability improving. Hiking increases the body's proprioception. Now, what is proprioception? This is the mind's awareness of the body's position and its movement in relation to the terrain around it. So you are improving your body's core muscles to improve your balance and training your brain.
And lastly, hiking can help you lose unwanted weight and increase your strength.
When you hike, you are constantly burning calories, though the amount depends heavily on your weight, aerobic density, and the intensity of the hike. Even going on a few light hikes every month, you will start to see a change. Using a pair of trekking poles on your hike can also help you move more efficiently and help put less strain on your joints, so you can spend more time on the trail to get the exercise your body desperately needs.
But it’s not all about the physical benefits, but about the mental ones, too. Hiking is a contributor to improving one’s mood for obvious reasons - such as being out in the sunlight or having access to better air quality. But here are some reasons that I learned once I started hiking more that I would like to share.
Let’s talk about the surprising ways that hiking can help improve your mental well-being.
Nature can make us feel less stressed and at peace.
There is constant research being done on the effects that outdoor activities have on the brain and the emotional well-being of individuals. Many studies show that nature and being in nature can make us feel less stressed and at peace. I have noticed that I have felt more at peace and happy throughout the days following a hike. If I go on consistent hikes throughout the week, I feel a more significant effect altogether. So I recommend that everybody try to make sure they take some time outside each day. Whether it be a short walk around the neighborhood or simply sitting outside with the sun on your face, I believe you'll start to see the benefits.
Nature is a great way to detach from our phones.
Even though you stop for the occasional picture or video, most of the time you spend on a hike is walking. This disconnection with tech will have long-term positive effects on your body. Studies have shown an excessive amount of time spent on your phone or social media can cause an increase in stress and anxiety. Taking the time to detach from this and live in the moment will ultimately help you improve on the mental stress and anxiety you might be feeling. When I go hiking, I love to take pictures and document the beauty around me on the trail. One of the ways I try to stay off my phone is to turn it on silent and bring a camera with me. This reduces the amount that I look at my phone and distracts me less.
Hiking and being out in nature improve stress levels.
If you've ever been feeling stressed at work, a common thing people will tell you to do is to take a walk. This is because when you're outside on a walk or a hike for just 20 minutes, your cortisol levels drop about 13%. Cortisol is your body's primary stress hormone. So, if you're ever feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try to go and take some time in nature for at least 20 minutes.
Did you know that hiking will help improve your memory and brain function?
When you're out on a hike, big or small, you will have more blood flow at a faster rate. This is because your blood carries lots of oxygen and nutrients, so when there is an increased amount of blood flow, there will be an improvement in the connections in the brain. These improvements allow for your brain to have an increased number of neurons firing – which in turn makes for better memory and cognitive function. So make time for nature at least once a week. The long-term benefits will help with your memory, concentration, and focus at work and in your personal life.
A significant factor that tends to affect your mood and mental well-being is your sleep patterns.
Hiking and getting out into nature will help improve your sleep quality and patterns. It's shown that taking at least one hike per week will help increase your vitamin D levels. Having higher levels of vitamin D can help fix your poor sleep quality. In addition, Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter, stated that exposure to sunlight, specifically in the morning, will help your body produce more of the sleep hormone melatonin at night. So not only does going for hikes help you improve your sleep quality, but it will also help you fall asleep easier at night.
And last but not least, hiking is a great way to build community.
Whenever I have gone on hikes or camping trips, I have met an exodus of people. These are all people that come together because they have a common interest in loving the outdoors. If you struggle to meet people or don't feel comfortable hiking by yourself, there are tremendous amounts of groups online that help you find that community. One that I am a part of is Women Who Hike. These groups are a great way to meet people around the world, and they will also give you great tips on where to go and what to bring. Another great option is REI's outdoor classes. You can sign up for many hikes and trips that REI runs.
And there you have it, the many ways that hiking can help your body and your mind. All you need to do is embrace the nature around you. Challenge yourself this week to go out on a hike with family, friends, or even solo. This can be a short or long hike; don't stress it and go. We’d love to hear about what positive effects on your health you’ve noticed from hiking in the comments below!