Is Hiking Good Exercise? 6 Ways It Boosts Your Health

No matter if you’re trying to shed a bit of body fat, work on your cardio, or just want to go for a hike and you’re digging into the benefits of hiking, you might be wondering… is hiking good exercise? The short answer is yes, hiking is a great exercise, and I’ll get into all the nitty-gritty details throughout this article.

As you read, you’ll get my personal opinion on things and how I can attest to hiking being good exercise. But I don’t want you to take your workout advice from some random guy on the web named Outdoor Andrew, so I’m going to get into some of the researched-backed scientific details of what hiking does to your body. 

So strap on your backpack and get ready to exercise your brain. It’s time to learn all about adding hiking to your workout routine.

Why Is Hiking Good Exercise?

Before we get into the good stuff and talk about the ways that hiking is good exercise, let’s just start with the basics and briefly talk about why hiking is good exercise. If you were just wondering whether it actually was good exercise or not, that one’s easy. 

Hiking is absolutely terrific exercise. Let’s look at a couple of quick reasons why.

In short, hiking is a great form of exercise because it trains your entire body, stimulates your brain, works on your balance, helps you lose weight, and more. But even more than that, hiking is one of the few workouts where you can choose exactly how long, how difficult, and how taxing it is. Few exercises give you more versatility than hiking. 

Plus, it’s just straight-up fun! I don’t know too many avid hikers who do it purely for the exercise. Just about everyone I know who hikes, does it for the love of hiking — myself included. 

The workout you get from it is just a major bonus! 

6 Ways That Hiking is Healthy For You

Let’s dive into all of these benefits of hiking in a lot more detail as we look at exactly how hiking is good for you. Here are the main ways that hiking is healthy and good for your body.

Hiking is a Full-Body Workout

If you’ve ever gone on a challenging hike, then you know where I’m coming from here. Before anything else, hiking is a full-body workout. Many people seem to think that hiking is just a cardio workout — we’ll touch on that shortly — or something they can use to work on their legs. 

But hiking does way more than just that, it’s one of those activities that engages just about every muscle in your body at one point or another during a hike. Legs are the obvious ones, so let’s start there. 

While you’re hiking, you’ll be walking, running, climbing, jumping, and more as you go along your journey, traversing whatever terrain comes your way. All these different movements, angles, and forces not only constantly work your legs out, but do so in a variety of ways, engaging various muscles (quads, calves, hamstrings, etc.).

After your legs, let’s go straight up to your core, which is constantly being engaged while you hike. Your core includes not only your abs, but also your obliques and lower back muscles.

Every step you take, every root or branch you climb over, and every rock you scale tightens up, twists, and works out your core. This not only makes you more fit but also helps with your balance by increasing your body’s stability.

Lastly, let’s tough on your arms and upper body. After all, hiking can’t possibly train these things, right? Wrong!

While hiking, you’re always going to be pumping your arms as you move, naturally training them. Even more, if you use trekking poles or walking sticks, or you’re pulling yourself up rocks, around trees, and more, you’ll be getting a solid upper body workout in even if you don’t realize it.

Hiking also works out your heart and your brain, but those two deserve their own sections below.

Hiking is a Cardiovascular Workout

The next reason that hiking is such an amazing exercise is that it’s a solid cardio workout. As the name suggests, cardiovascular exercise has to do with your heart. During a cardio workout, your heart rate is elevated because your body needs to pump blood more efficiently to ensure you’re getting enough oxygen.

This is what happens when you’re going for a run, for example.

Your body needs more oxygen, so it starts pumping blood — and therefore oxygen — much more efficiently. These types of cardio workouts are also known as aerobic exercises, meaning that they have to do with oxygen. Anything like running, cycling, walking, and, of course, hiking, all classify as cardio exercises and aerobic fitness.

So what does this even mean? 

Just like you can train your biceps or legs to be stronger, you can also train your heart and improve your cardiovascular health by performing aerobic workouts. As your heart has to pump faster and more efficiently, it gets better at doing so, meaning that it doesn’t have to start pumping quite as hard quite as fast next time. 

That’s why if you consistently run a mile, it gets easier and easier over time. The same with hiking. 

During a difficult hike, your heart rate can really get up there any time you’re going uphill, traversing uneven terrain, hiking for long distances, or going fast. Just like going for a run or riding a bike, this will train your heart to become stronger and more efficient, eventually enabling you to go on even longer, more challenging hikes in the future!

Hiking Reduces Cognitive Impairment by Stimulating Your Brain

Have you ever heard the saying if you don’t use it, you lose it? It can be true for many different areas of life, but none are more important than your brain. 

Think about how you’d lose your other muscle definition and all that cardio we talked about above if you decided to stop working out and just sat around on the couch all day and night. You stopped using those muscles, so you lose them, right?

The same goes for your brain; and once your brain starts to deteriorate, it can be nearly impossible to get it back. Since I’m fairly young and most of my audience is as well, I know that we all like to think this is something that only really affects the elderly and we have a long time to go before our brains start having any trouble.

However, since we now know that brains never level off and are instead constantly changing and evolving, there’s no better time than right now to ensure you train it just like you would another muscle in your body. While we’re growing up and in school, this is easy since it’s constantly stimulated. Similarly, if you have an engaging job that makes you think.

But you can (and should!) stimulate your brain in other ways, and hiking is a great avenue for it. When you’re hiking, you have to constantly plan where you’re going to go next, which rock or root you should step on, etc. You have to listen for wildlife, and you’re continuously taking in the beauty of nature all around you.

It’s a different type of stimulation than your brain will get from sitting in the office or doing stuff around the house. For this reason alone, just going on a gentle hike that isn’t even physically taxing is still worth doing when you have the time.

Hiking Reduces Stress and Improves Happiness

So far we’ve focused mainly on the physical attributes of adding hiking to your workout routine, but they aren’t the only reasons that hiking is good for you. If you’re feeling down or you’re in a bit of a funk, hiking can be one of the best ways to change how you feel for the better.

I could write an entire article focused solely on the mental health benefits of hiking, but I’ll try to keep it a little shorter here for brevity’s sake. In short, hiking can help to reduce stress and anxiety while simultaneously making you feel happier. And this isn’t just because I like hiking so I think everyone will, but it actually has to do with hormones and brain chemistry.

There’s a lot more that goes into this, but an abridged way to think about it is that when you’re stressed or anxious, your body releases cortisol, which is often referred to as the stress hormone. On the opposite end of the spectrum, your body releases things like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine when you’re happy. These are the happy hormones.

Due to the way that our brains work and how being out in nature affects them, any sort of outdoor exercise, like going for a hike, can simultaneously reduce cortisol levels while also releasing endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. In layman’s terms, hiking reduces the stress hormone and increases the happy hormones, helping us feel better and bettering our mood naturally. 

This is why going for a hike is one of my favorite things to do any time I’m in a bit of a funk. Enjoy nature, soak up some natural light, and take it all in. You might be surprised as just how much a simple hike can improve your mental health and overall well-being.

You Can Tailor Your Hike Exactly the Way You Want

Another reason that hiking is such a great workout is because of its versatility. With most workouts, you pretty much have to do the same thing, with perfect form, for a set number of reps and sets.

But with hiking, you have all the freedom in the world to make it exactly the way you want, depending on what type of workout you want it to be.

When you’re planning out your hike, you have complete control over pretty much everything, including the duration, the elevation gain, how fast or slow you go, the types of terrain you go over, what time of day you go, what the weather is like, and more. As long as you’re not hit with a surprise storm or anything like that, you can basically plan the entire hike out.

This means you can choose from a challenging, sweat-inducing hike up a mountain or a slow walk through the woods at a moderate pace where you never break a sweat. Or anything in between.

This versatility makes hiking easy to add to just about any workout routine you’re currently following. Plus it leads directly into the last entry in this article.

Hiking is Fun

I know, I know. Up until now, I’ve talked mostly about researched-backed methods explaining why hiking is good exercise. But I wanted to finish this article off with arguably my personal favorite reason why you should add it to your workout regime: it’s fun!

I know that when I first fell in love with the outdoors and going camping and hiking, I never really thought about it being a good workout. I just loved being outdoors so much that hiking just became one of my go-to activities.

But after you go on your first few hikes, especially as they start to get more strenuous, trust me, you’ll be able to tell that it’s a great workout. To this day, I still wake up in the morning after a tough hike the previous day and I can feel it all over my body.

And for the most part, I’d like to think I’m a pretty healthy guy who tries to eat right and hit the gym 4-5 times per week. So I can certainly attest to the fact that hiking is way more fun than heading to the gym.

I like lifting weights and running on a treadmill as much as the next person. But when I’m able to toss a challenging hike into my routine for the week, I look forward to that day a heck of a lot more than I do the normal gym days!

Should You Add Hiking to Your Workout?

As you can see, there are many benefits of hiking that make it a great addition to pretty much anyone’s life or workout plan. The obvious ones are all the physical benefits like building muscle mass, losing weight, and strengthening your core. 

But you can’t overlook the mental health benefits of hiking that just simply make you feel better when you get done. Plus, you won’t really find another workout that’s so versatile and enjoyable. It definitely beats heading to the gym day after day and pumping iron. 

These are all reasons that I think hiking is a great supplement to your existing workout, or even as a standalone exercise that you do on its own. Heck, if you don’t want to head to the gym and you’re not worried about putting on a bunch of muscle, hiking is enough of a whole-body workout that it gets (or keeps) you in shape by itself.

All that said, I’m not a personal trainer, I’m not a nutritionist, and I’m not some sort of health expert. I’m just an outdoor enthusiast trying to get more people to spend time outdoors by talking about the benefits of hiking. I hope to see you all on the trails!

Key Takeaways on Hiking as Exercise

  • Hiking is a full-body workout, and it’s a great way to either supplement your normal workout or use it to start getting back in shape (or staying in shape) on its own.

  • On top of your key muscle groups, hiking also trains your heart and your brain. Cardiovascular health and improved cognitive function are both things that shouldn’t be taken lightly!

  • In addition to physical health benefits, hiking can also reduce stress and make you feel happier thanks to the way it alters your brain chemistry.

  • You can tailor your hike so it’s exactly how you want it in terms of difficulty, speed, duration, terrain, and more. This versatility makes hiking unique among workouts.

  • Hiking is fun!

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