For the last year, the pandemic has kept people indoors, less active and more anxious. Now that states have begun to reopen and spring weather has arrived, a great pent-up need for recreation and exercise has created a boom in hiking and getting outdoors that spans all regions and age groups.
With health experts increasingly confident in the evidence showing that viruses are transmitted much less readily outdoors than indoors, it’s definitely time to consider the many benefits of hiking. Hiking can give you physical and cognitive benefits you cannot get through gym training alone.
Stories are coming out every week, from prestigious medical journals and top news sources, about the benefits of getting outside — and now more than ever, people are responding. But it’s not just the greatly reduced risk of virus transmission that makes outdoor exercise an attractive option. Hiking strengthens the body, the immune system, and the brain in ways other forms of exercise don’t – especially as we get older.
Hiking is the “fountain of youth” for our bodies and our brains – and how science backs this up:
– The elevated heart rate, plus the leg-centric emphasis you get from hiking, can trigger both angiogenesis (growing new capillaries) and neurogenesis (growing new brain neurons).
– This kind of exercise – elevated heart rate plus complex movements — not only creates a stronger heart and muscles, and enhanced endurance, but it makes your brain more resistant to cognitive decline by building new neural pathways.
– The weight-bearing nature of hiking builds stronger bones and muscles, better balance, and faster reaction times, leading to improved fall prevention and reduced injury in the event of a fall.
– Being outside in the sunshine produces elevated levels of Vitamin D, which give you a more resistant immune system.
– Being outside for as little as two hours a week keeps your serotonin levels up. This helps raise your energy, keeps your mood calm, positive, and focused, and reduces anxiety and depression.
– Being outside and away from phone, computer, and tv screens contributes to natural vision improvement by allowing your eye muscles to use their full range of motion.
These insights are based in the latest science on exercise physiology, neuroplasticity, angiogenesis, mindfulness, and disease prevention. Studies highlight the importance of “dual tasking” – exercising your brain and body at the same time. Hiking is an excellent activity for dual tasking since it requires movement, balance, vision, proprioception, decision-making, all great cognitive activities that occur while you are working your legs, your lungs and your heart. This can have a powerful anti-aging effect.
Hiking is the fourth most popular outdoor activity after running, fishing and biking, with more than 50 million participants, and it’s growing fast, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 participation report.
In researching for my book, I interviewed more than 100 hikers aged 50 to 80 to hear their stories and verify the science. I’ve never spoken to a group of people who were more energetic, optimistic, motivated, confident, and goal-oriented in the face of challenges. Hiking has given them the confidence and the energy to face life’s obstacles and walk right over them.
One woman shared the story of how climbing the highest mountain in Colorado just two weeks after a mastectomy gave her the certainty she was “still me.” An Illinois office worker described his lunchtime walks as his “secret weapon for getting through stressful days.” The book is laced with 25 similar inspirational stories plus lessons learned from the author’s hiking experience around the world.
Outdoor exercise, particularly hiking, is so fundamental to staying active and getting fit. It’s not just about getting in your 10,000 steps, it’s the quality of those steps. Steps gained by hiking outdoors do so much more than treadmill steps, or steps achieved in your daily indoor activities. It engages your brain like nothing else, which take the benefits to a whole new level. Hiking is something you can do to offset and reverse the declines of the natural aging process. That’s why I call it the “fountain of youth.”