How hiking benefits your body and your brain, too

Boost your brain, your balance and your bones with a hike.

Heading out into the countryside to go hiking is one of life’s great pleasures for many of us. In fact, almost a quarter of people in the UK identify themselves as hikers or ramblers – enjoying both physical and mental wellbeing benefits.

“The scientific research on the benefits of hiking goes back more than 50 years and it says over and over again how good it is for us,” says Susie Amann,  an international mountain leader who is finalising a master’s dissertation on the benefits of multi-day hiking at Buckinghamshire New University.

“In our modern lives we have stress, we lead a sedentary lifestyle, often in front of screens all day, and it creates a disconnect from the lives of our ancestors. Getting out hiking gives us a chance to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with nature and to improve our physical and mental health. When I take people out hiking, they return transformed in mind and body.”

A woman hiker laughingCredit: Shutterstock / Jacob Lund

Physical benefits of hiking

1. Cardiovascular health

Hiking is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise, as it gets your heart rate up and improves blood circulation. Regular hiking can strengthen your heart, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the British Heart Foundation, you can reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease by 35% by being more active.

2. Weight management

Hiking can help you to lose weight and reduce body fat by increasing the number of calories you burn in a day. The number of calories you burn depends on how fast you walk, the steeper the gradient and how far you walk. But researchers found walking for longer but more slowly burns more fat than a shorter, faster walk.

A group of hikers walking towards a sunsetCredit: Shutterstock /Dmitry Molchanov

3. Muscle strength and endurance

Hiking engages various muscle groups, including the legs, glutes, core and even the upper body if you use trekking poles. Amman says that over time, this can lead to improved muscle strength and endurance.

4. Bone health

Weight-bearing activities such as hiking can contribute to better bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Over the age of 40, both men and women lose about 1% of our bone density per year. Strength training has been shown by research to keep our bones strong and hiking is a great way of introducing it into your life.

5. Improved balance and coordination

Hiking on uneven terrain requires balance and coordination, and can help improve these skills over time, reducing the risk of falls in daily life. Research has also suggested that stronger lower limbs can also make a big difference our balance.

6. Joint health

Contrary to high-impact activities such as running, hiking is generally easier on the joints, while still providing beneficial movement. It can help lubricate the joints and alleviate joint stiffness.

7. Vitamin D absorption

Spending time outdoors during a hike allows your body to absorb vitamin D from sunlight, contributing to better overall health.

Mental health benefits of hiking

A male hiker looking at a viewCredit: Shutterstock / Jacob Lund

1. Reduces stress

Being in nature and engaging in physical activity during hiking can significantly reduce stress levels. The serene environment, fresh air and natural surroundings help promote relaxation and a sense of calm.

2. Improves your mood

Hiking has been shown to release endorphins, also known as “feel-good” hormones, which can lead to an enhanced mood and a reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression.

3. Helps you focus

Spending time in nature and engaging in physical activity during hiking has been linked to improved cognitive function, including better attention span, focus and memory.

4. Boosts your creativity

Being surrounded by natural beauty can spark creativity and problem-solving abilities. Many people find that spending time in nature helps them think more clearly and come up with new ideas.

A man balancing on a ridge in the Lake DistrictCredit: Shutterstock /Irene Miller

5. Is a chance for mindfulness or meditation

Hiking provides an opportunity for mindfulness and meditation as you focus on the present moment, and the sights, sounds and smells of nature. This can lead to a greater sense of self-awareness and inner peace.

6. Helps you connect with others

Hiking can be a social activity when done with friends, family or hiking groups. Socialising during a hike can lead to increased feelings of connection and belonging, which are vital for mental wellbeing. Read our guide on how to find a walking group to locate one near you.

7. Boosts your self esteem

Amann says that she’s found that overcoming hiking challenges, such as difficult terrains or long distances, can build resilience and confidence, helping you tackle other life challenges with a positive outlook. She also says reaching the summit of a challenging hike or completing a long trail can create a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction – and boost your self-esteem.

8. Gives you a mental detox

Hiking allows you to disconnect from screens and the hustle and bustle of urban life, providing a much-needed mental break and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. One study suggests that this disconnect can even improve our problem-solving skills. Researchers found that participants in the study who had been hiking in nature for four days, without the distractions of any technology, completed problem-solving tasks 50% faster than those who hadn’t unplugged.

The Scottish-born naturalist John Muir is remembered as the ‘father of America’s National Parks’. He wrote:

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Expert insight into the benefits of hiking

“Getting away from daily stresses into the beauty of nature has a transformative effect,” Amann says. “Walking gives us time to process, to think or just to let our minds go blank and take a break.

“Getting out hiking can actually change your perspective, improve your mood and help you solve issues you may have been struggling with before.

“Some of the people I’ve taken on hiking trips have gone home and changed their lives – whether it’s a new job, retirement or moving to a new location. Hiking really can open up new worlds to you in more ways than you could imagine.”

Jonathan Kattenberg, a mountain leader and clinical hypnotherapist who runs guided walks for mental health, agrees.

“With my clients, either individually or in groups, I can see the change in them as we hike,” he shares.

“They get more relaxed, they look around more, in groups they start to talk to other people and share experiences and end up with that healthy tiredness by the end that only a day hiking in nature can give you.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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