Looking for a way to get in shape while enjoying the great outdoors? Just lace up a pair of sturdy shoes and start walking.
“Hiking is a wonderful way not only to participate in aerobic exercise, but also to clear your head,” says board-certified family physician Ray Sahelian, MD, who not only recommends hiking to his patients but also practices what he preaches by hiking regularly in the mountains near his Southern California home.
Texas allergist William Howland, MD, who says he’s “just a guy who likes to be outdoors,” is another hiking enthusiast, both professionally and personally. “Hiking offers benefits for both the mind and body,” he says.
In the first place, hiking (which can be as moderate as a walk around your block or as strenuous as a mountain climb) is a weight-bearing exercise, which helps prevent osteoporosis, Howland explains. Being outside in the sunshine, which provides the body with vitamin D, is another bone-healthy reason for putting one foot in front of the other.
Because hiking is an aerobic exercise, it offers important cardiovascular benefits, says Sahelian. “Going up and down hills gives the heart a great workout.”
What’s more, hiking can also help you manage your weight, possibly reduce, or even eliminate, your need for insulin if you have Type 2 diabetes, and is a joint-friendly form of exercise that can keep arthritis sufferers more limber and mobile.
Hiking offers psychological benefits as well, say Sahelian and Howland. “There’s a feeling of relaxation and enhanced well-being that comes on after a few-mile hike in the woods,” says Sahelian.
“Hiking takes you away from the hustle and bustle of your daily life,” says Howland. “It can put you into a meditative space, almost like self-hypnosis.”
Almost anyone can hike at some level, say the doctors, but they caution that if you have any type of hypertension or heart disease, you should get your doctor’s go-ahead before attempting uphill hikes. Even if you are healthy, says Sahelian, don’t rush right off to your nearest mountainside. Train first by taking long walks on a flat surface, and also walking up and down steps or using an inclined treadmill in the gym to get in shape.
“Don’t push yourself, and use common sense as you build up your endurance,” Howland says.
You don’t need a hiking trail per se to walk — walking around your own neighborhood is just as effective from a fitness standpoint as going to a park, but if you would like to put a little distance between yourself and the sidewalks you see every day, the American Hiking Society (AHS) can provide you with free information to guide you to one of the country’s more than 170,000 miles of trails.