Some of us, myself included, crave a hard run to blow off steam after a long day of work or a strenuous weight lifting session for a brief escape from the to-do list. When our blood is pumping, and our legs are burning, the stresses of life seem to shed with our sweat. We become present. Nothing seems to matter but getting to the end of the workout.
But sometimes, after a long day in the office, going to the gym or setting out for a run sounds worse than getting mauled by a bear. So for our own sanity, we skip the workout and are deprived of the reprieve exercise has to offer. So what’s an easygoing alternative to your usual fitness routine that will provide immense physical benefits while also offering an escape from reality? Hiking.
There’s something special about purposeful movement through nature that leaves one feeling satisfied. Nevertheless, hiking is rarely considered exercise in the same way running, lifting, swimming and CrossFit are. But a refreshing walk through the woods is actually no less a workout than your typical run around town or gym session might be. In fact, according to a study done at the University of Michigan, hiking on uneven terrain increases the amount of energy your body uses by 28% compared to walking on flat ground, and burns almost as many calories as it would on a merely flat run. Trails that are varied in terrain and that go up, down and sideways require subtle shifts in the way your leg muscles lengthen or shorten while performing work, and those shifts increase the amount of energy expended during your trek.
On top of expending more energy, participants of the study were able to push harder and longer during a hike than they were when walking on a treadmill. Given this, you’d think the participants would have experienced the outdoor hike as more tiring but instead, they reported the opposite. They not only said they felt less fatigued afterward, but they also reported increased feelings of pleasure both during and immediately following the outdoor hike. In other words, their perceived effort was lower while hiking, even though they were working harder and therefore, receiving heightened fitness gains.
The study also points out that engaging those often-neglected muscles may improve your balance and stability, which could help with aches and pains due to muscular instability. Using muscles that may sit dormant at your desk or even during your regular workout may knock down your risk for the kinds of overuse injuries—like knee or hip pains, or band issues—that can result from the repetitive nature of level-ground walking, running, sitting and lifting weights.
But more important than toning your legs and torching calories, the sights, sounds and smells encountered while out for a nature walk are incredibly beneficial for mental wellbeing and mindfulness. A 2015 study from Stanford University found that time spent in the natural environments found on a hike calmed activity in a part of the brain that research has linked to mental illness. Hanging out with Mother Nature also seems to reduce your mind’s tendency to “ruminate”—a word psychologists use for negative, self-focused patterns of thought that are linked with anxiety and depression. Greg Bratman, the coauthor of the study, put it best. Spending time outside has a way to increase positive feelings and reduce the negative ones.
According to Bradman, more research needs to be conducted on the benefits hiking has on mental health but it’s worth a try when the alternative gym session seems daunting. For both your mind and body, a jaunt through the woods may be tough to beat.