What do Disney’s Pocahontas, Charles Dickens, and Jillian Michaels have in common? They believe that hiking is essential to a healthy life. Here’s why.

Hiking improves fitness

First, hiking is hard work. There are no handrails on mother nature’s treadmill, so your entire body has to respond to changes in elevation, terrain, and the elements. When you walk on a flat surface—including a treadmill set at an incline, your body acts like a pendulum, allowing you to keep moving with little effort. But when you walk on uneven terrain—the type you’d encounter on nature trails, deep-sand beaches or other natural surfaces—the energy transfer stops. 

Your metabolic rate increases and you burn more calories as you work to keep yourself moving. In fact, hiking for one hour can burn between 400–600 calories!

You also have to carry whatever it is you want to keep with you, and you don’t get to count reps and sets and weights and measures: you get whatever the next step brings regardless of the burn in your legs or your lungs. 

If you want to keep going, you have to work through the unpleasant sensations. At the end of an hour (the length of the average workout), that burn is more satisfying than doing 30 minutes on a Stairmaster and a few sets of sit-ups.

Hiking increases focus

Hiking helps you unplug. We are beset by emails, texts, televisions, beeping, and background music in cafés, malls, and restaurants. Research shows that the addictive quality of Twitter and texting is similar to that of pulling a slot machine. “Random rewards” is the reason you can’t help yourself from turning your attention to every beep and buzz you hear. Most of the time, it’s nothing, but every once and a while, the call is important or the email is relevant to your life.

On a hike, you are bombarded by all the sensations of being alive. It puts your nervous system at ease and brings you back to the fact that you are a person, a body that is made of more than biceps and glutes. You finish with a feeling of total relaxation and satisfaction with life.

Hiking boosts creativity

While a three-hour walk in the woods won’t translate directly to penning the next Giller Prize, it expands your world-view and gives your left-brain a boost!

Some of the world’s brilliant minds were just as so for their long walks and time spent in nature. For example, William Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens, who after writing from nine in the morn- ing to two in the afternoon, would go for a long walk—a 20- or 30-miler. 

When Dickens couldn’t sleep at night, which was often, he’d crawl London’s streets until dawn. Dickens walked so much that his friends worried, figuring he had a mania for walking that bordered on pathology. Soren Kierkegaard also found relief in walking to the point of remarking, “Do not lose your desire to walk… the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill.”

Hiking can keep you financially fit

Hiking saves you money. It is free compared to the average gym membership that costs $800 per year. Also, there are no shops along a hiking trail so there are no impulse buys or sales to take you off your financial track. Often, people go to the mall for exercise, or just out and walk around the city. But “window shopping” can lead to real shopping, and a walk around the city 

Hiking makes you happy.

More people than ever struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues than ever before. Approximately 10% of Canadians at any given time are experiencing depression symptoms, and by the age of 40, at least half of all Canadians will have reported depression.

One study found that in the most extreme cases of high-risk suicide patients, mountain hiking led to a drastic decrease in feelings of hopelessness. New research shows that even a 90-minute walk in nature can have a dramatic effect on the brain and its happiness centres.

The researchers of the study asked participants to fill in a rumination questionnaire: the degree to which they experienced repetitive, negative self-reflection. This is a key element of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Researchers did a brain scan before sending participants on a walk in either an urban or an outdoor environment. The participants who had taken the walk in a natural environment showed significant and consistent reductions in ruminative thought.

This suggests that hiking goes beyond making you happier and less anxious— it changes the way your brain works. Your worries shift away from the negative, repetitive thoughts, to the prefrontal cortex where you can focus on the moment and the world around you.

Thus, the best benefit of hiking is that it can actively contribute to increased feelings of happiness—particularly among those who struggle with depression, or low self-esteem.

Hiking makes you fearless

Many women have unfounded fears about hiking, especially when it comes to hiking alone. The activity of hiking conjures up images of wild animals, heights, darkness, storms, or simply being alone that can deter them. Instead, start small, building up to more difficult trails, uncomfortable weather, and rough environments. If you are usually a social hiker, a solo hike is an opportunity to hike faster, farther, or longer than you normally would.

And let’s remember it was Disney’s Pocahontas—a woman—who showed Captain John Smith that Mother Nature is our best friend, “Come roll in all the riches all around you, and for once, never wonder what they’re worth.”

More Inspiration: Check out this great article on the best foods to take when hiking. And don’t forget water!

Author: Jennifer Graham is an OptiMYz writer. She enjoys exploring the relationship between people and food.

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