13 Personal, Mental, & Physical Health Benefits of Hiking

If you’ve spent any time here on Outdoor Andrew, you know how much I love hiking and everything about being outdoors. One thing I’ve learned over the years is just how much better I feel after I go for a hike. 

I mean sure, I’m exhausted after a long hike, but trust me when I say it’s worth it. You don’t really know the benefits of hiking until you go out there and feel them for yourself. And if you have all the hiking gear you need, getting into it is easy and fun!

You might be thinking that the most obvious benefit of hiking is that it’s good exercise and will improve your physical health. While true, that’s not all hiking does for you. The benefits of hiking cover just about every aspect of your overall health and happiness, including improvements to mental health, relationships (with yourself and others), and physical health.

While many of the things we talk about in this article are based on my own experiences and the way hiking makes me feel, there are many health benefits that are outside of my purview of expertise. 

So not only will you get my view on some of the best hiking benefits, but I’ll throw in some research-back data from reputable sources like the Cleveland Clinic, the National Park Service, and more.

What Are the Benefits of Hiking?

While I could go on for days about all the various benefits of hiking, I’ll limit myself to three categories — physical benefits, mental benefits, and relational benefits. Feel free to jump around to whichever category you want to know more about, or just read through each one and get the full picture.

Let’s dive in.

Physical Health Benefits of Hiking

The first thing people think of when they’re considering hiking and the potential ways it can improve their life is the physical health benefits. While I’ll definitely touch on my personal thoughts and feelings about them, I’ll defer to the experts at the National Park Service and the Cleveland Clinic for some of the scientific information. 

If you want more information on the physical benefits of hiking, check out our article focused entirely on how hiking is great physical exercise and how it helps your body. Since that article is much more of a deep dive on this topic, I’ll try to keep it a little briefer here.

Great Cardio Workout

A cardio workout — short for cardiovascular — is basically one that gets the heart pumping and increases your heart rate. This forces your heart to pump more blood — or at least to pump more efficiently — to meet the elevated oxygen needs of your body.

Cardio workouts like hiking have many benefits, including improving your heart health, increasing your endurance (letting you hike more!), burning calories, and more. Hiking improves your cardiovascular health due to the strenuous nature of it in general, but you can always turn it up a notch by hiking longer, harder, and faster if you want a better workout.

Full Body Workout

In addition to being great for your cardiovascular health, hiking is one of those activities that engages just about your entire body, meaning it’s a full-body workout as well. Trust me, after your first strenuous hike, you’ll wake up the next day feeling a little sore all over. But that’s how you know it’s worth it.

Hiking not only trains your heart, but it also actively works on your legs from various angles, it engages your core (abs and back) with every step and every bit of terrain you traverse, it trains your arms as you pull yourself along tough trails with trekking poles, and more. 

Few activities will train as much at once as hiking, making it a great addition to any workout routine.

Can Help You Lose Weight

This one kind of goes hand in hand with the first two since anything that’s a combination of cardio and a total workout is usually great for losing weight as well. But helping with weight loss is a big enough benefit of hiking to make it worth mentioning on its own. 

One of the more subtle reasons hiking can help you lose weight is because it’s so unlike any other workout, so you’re more apt to spend extra time doing it compared to anything in the gym. Just think about it… what’s more fun, walking on a treadmill in a boring old gym, or walking the same distance on a trail in the middle of nature?

You all know where I stand on that question!

Improves Your Balance

I mentioned above how hiking actively engages your core with every step. Not only does this strengthen your back and abs, but a side benefit of the increased core strength is that your balance will naturally improve.

Balance is one of those things that you’ll rarely hear anyone talking about in terms of the benefits of a workout, but improved balance can have a huge impact on your life. Having better balance makes activities like hiking easier, sure, but your older self will also thank you if you’ve worked on it over the years. 

Exercises Your Brain

Rounding off this section is arguably the best physical benefit of hiking: the way it exercises your brain. Working on cardio, losing weight, and improving muscle definition are all amazing benefits of hiking. 

But nothing in or on our bodies is more important than our brains, and it’s just as essential to keep it stimulated as it is to work out any other parts.

During a challenging hike, your mind is constantly engaged, even if you don’t notice it consciously. As you move along the trail, your brain is deciding the best place to put your foot, it’s engaging the right muscle groups to stay upright and balanced, it’s always planning your next step. 

This constant stimulation will help keep your brain active and healthy, which has the potential to vastly improve the rest of your life moving forward by helping to prevent dementia and other forms of cognitive issues.

Mental Health Benefits of Hiking

In addition to all the physical health benefits of hiking, I can’t say enough about the importance of mental health and the positive effect hiking can have on the way you feel. It seems these days that people’s mental health doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but I’m a firm believer in taking care of yourself and being the best you can be. 

And hiking — not to mention being outdoors in general — has been my go-to way to improve mine. Here are some of the best ways that hiking can help improve your happiness.

Lowers Your Stress and Anxiety

I understand all the stresses, pressures, and anxiety of everyday life. Work, family life, financial stresses, and more can bring us down, stress us out, and cause us to feel anxious. These stresses are often caused by the release of cortisol in our bodies, typically known as the stress hormone.

While I understand that simply going outside won’t immediately solve your problems, studies have shown that being in nature will effectively lower your cortisol levels and reduce stress and anxiety. 

Scientific jargon aside, being outside and soaking up the sun, taking in the sounds and sights of nature, and just getting away from the hustle and bustle of life has always anecdotally made me far less stressed than I do when I’m sitting at my desk or paying my monthly bills! 

Increased Your Happiness

This ties in closely to the reduction in stress and anxiety, but hiking is a natural way to just make you happier. And I’m not speaking just anecdotally here. Many of the same studies and organizations that talk about it lowering cortisol levels also discuss how hiking releases endorphins, which are basically the happy hormones.

I know I’m getting into the weeds a bit on hormones and things that affect your brain, but these are the exact things that control your the way you feel. Brain chemistry controls pretty much everything about how you feel, and the fact that hiking lowers stress hormones while increasing happy hormones makes it an incredible way to improve the way you feel.

Helps You Focus on the Positives

We all know the adage that says we are our own biggest critics, and it’s one of the things that I truly believe. Humans – you, me, and most other people – tend to beat ourselves up over negative things far more than we celebrate any positive aspects in our lives. This focus on the negatives makes us feel down about life and can even lead to depression.

But a 2015 study performed by Stanford researchers has shown that a 90-minute walk in nature (read: hike) reduces a key factor that leads to depression. This study goes a step further to differentiate between a walk in nature versus a walk through a busy city, citing the importance of getting away from urban areas and getting out into nature.

Slows Down the World Around You

Tying into the benefit above, hiking truly helps you unplug from the busy, technology-filled world we live in today and focus on yourself and the natural world around you. These days it seems like we’re all constantly just rushing around trying to get something done or trying to meet a deadline.

Sometimes it’s good to just disconnect from it all, head out to your favorite trail (or one you’ve never hiked before), and spend a few hours in nature. Look at the trees and the plants around you. Listen to the birds and other creatures nearby. Soak up the natural light of the sun. It does wonders.

For me it’s simple. I’ve never gone on a hike and felt worse than when I left. 

How Hiking Can Improve Your Relationship with Yourself and Others

Lastly, let’s touch on the relational benefits of hiking and how it can help better your life in that way. By relationships, I mean not only the ones that you have with other people — be it a friend, partner, or family — but also the relationship you have with yourself. Both types are equally important, and hiking is a great way to build on them.

Your Relationship with Yourself

Perhaps the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. Being able to wake up every morning, look yourself in the mirror, and be proud of the person you are is a massive deal, and hiking is one of the best ways to focus on only yourself so you can better the way you feel about yourself.

With all the ways we just talked about how hiking can improve your mental health, the culmination of everything should lead to you bettering your relationship with yourself. A solo hike gives you time to reflect on the positives in your life and the good that you do. 

One simple way to start working on this relationship is to congratulate yourself after every hike, especially if you’ve challenged yourself with something new or strenuous. Be proud of what you do!

Your Relationship with Your Partner

As you spend more time on Outdoor Andrew, you’ll notice that a lot of my camping and hiking trips are with my partner. And that’s because spending time outdoors is our favorite thing to do together, and it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done to strengthen our bond and relationship.

When you’re hiking with a partner, you’re able to create new memories together. You can talk, laugh, and joke with nobody else around. It’s just you and nature. Conquering new trails, seeing new things, and just spending time together will naturally strengthen the relationship between you and your partner, so get out there together and have fun.

Your Relationship with Your Family

Similarly to strengthening your relationship with your significant other, hiking is one of the best ways to bond with your family. Since it’s so accessible to just about anyone, hiking is one of those things you can do with your kids, parents, grandkids, and even grandparents.

Hiking with your family is a fun, engaging way to teach your kids the importance of respecting the environment, working together to solve issues, and just getting them out of the house and into nature. Even for older folks, hiking is the perfect way to spend time together while also taking advantage of all those healthy benefits we talked about above.

Your Relationship with Nature

While your relationships with yourself and others are incredibly important, we can’t forget about your relationship with nature. Ever since I started camping and hiking, I’ve grown to respect nature far more than I did before. It’s just something that you want to have a great relationship with, and hiking is the perfect way to build one.

When you’re hiking, you’ll typically be smack dab in the middle of nature. Whether that means walking through the woods, climbing a mountain, or anything in between, nature is all around you. To get the best experience possible, you want to spend time taking it all in. The beauty of it; the serenity.  

Having a positive relationship with nature and the environment will also lead to more rewarding hikes in the future.  

Is Hiking Beneficial for Everyone?

This one is easy: the short answer is a resounding yes. I can’t think of a single reason why hiking wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone that’s able to do it. No matter if you’re looking to work on your physical health, improve your mental health, or want to work on your personal relationships, hiking is a great avenue for it

It’s also one of the most accessible outdoor activities that just about anyone can get into, no matter your experience level. If you’re brand new to hiking, I wrote a complete guide on hiking tips for beginners that’s a great place to start to help you understand the basics. From there, you’ll be able to head outdoors and go on your first — or next — hike. 

I hope to see you on the trails!

Key Takeaways

  • The main benefits of hiking include improvements to your physical health, mental well-being, personal relationships, and your overall happiness.

  • Hiking is great exercise and is one of the most enjoyable ways to work on your overall self while enjoying the outdoors.

  • An extended solo hike is one of the best ways to experience nature and have time to yourself, but don’t pass up hiking with a partner, friends, or family!

  • While you might dream of one day hiking the Appalachian Trail, even just heading to your local park or a nearby state park is a great way to get out in nature and go for a hike.

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