Hiking offers a striking range of physical, emotional, and social benefits, all wrapped up into a single enjoyable and easily accessible activity.
Those benefits don’t fade as we get older. If anything they become more important as we age. Hiking keeps us stronger, happier, and more in touch with other people and the world around us, and that makes it a perfect sport to age with.
Physical Benefits of Hiking
We all know about the physical effects of aging: declining strength, reduced flexibility, joint stiffness, just to name a few. We’ve read about them and many of us have experienced them. That doesn’t mean we have to give in or give up. Hiking may not make us younger but getting outdoors and walking on trails can directly counteract many of the physical limitations that come with age. Hiking can:
Improve cardiovascular fitness – Hiking strengthens the heart, lungs, and blood vessels, building endurance and improving circulation. As our fitness grows we can explore more challenging trails and keep expanding those gains. We don’t just feel that fitness on the trail, either. Put in enough trail hours and you say goodbye to huffing and puffing up staircases and struggling to keep up with the children or grandchildren!
Improve muscular fitness – Hiking builds multiple major muscle groups, with minimal impact and stress if you manage your hikes well. Hiking is also an ideal complement to many other forms of strength training because it builds muscle groups that are often overlooked in a gym.
Improve muscular coordination – Unlike many gym workouts, hiking doesn’t isolate muscles. When you hike you engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously toward a common goal, which builds overall strength and fitness and trains your muscles to work together.
Help with weight control – The Center For Disease Control (CDC) reports that a 154-pound person will burn an average of 370 calories/hour on a hike. If you’re heavier, you’ll burn even more! Regular hiking combined with a good diet can help you control your weight.
Help control diabetes – Exercise lowers blood glucose levels and raises insulin sensitivity, which helps to counteract insulin resistance. This trait combines with the many other physical benefits of physical activity to provide an important support to diabetes management, according to Harvard Medical School.
Help control hypertension – Regular exercise strengthens the heart and has a measurable impact on blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic reports that “becoming more active can lower your systolic blood pressure… by an average of 4 to 9 mm HG.” You’ll need to maintain regular exercise to get continued control of blood pressure, but the pleasure of hiking makes that easy to do!
Lower your risk of cancer – The National Cancer Institute states that “…there is strong evidence that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risk of several types of cancer.” The list of types included in that evaluation includes: bladder, breast, colon, kidney, and stomach, among other less common forms of cancer.
Develop core muscle strength – Walking on uneven surfaces constantly engages core muscles, building strength and stability.
Increase bone density – Walking is a weight-bearing exercise that can counteract the effects of osteoporosis and other bone conditions and promote bone strength.
Improve joint flexibility – Moving a joint loosens it, and the steady, constant low-impact movements of hiking can markedly improve the condition of deteriorating joints.
Improve balance – Walking on uneven and unpredictable surfaces forces small adjustments to your balance with every step. You don’t have to be a gymnast or a tightrope walker for those constant small challenges to improve your balance with every hike.
Contribute to a longer (and happier) life – The CDC also reports that “people who are physically active for 150 minutes a week have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who are physically inactive.”
These benefits are not just imaginary or hypothetical gains. Numerous medical studies have measured and quantified the far-reaching benefits of physical activity in general and the specific benefits of hiking, particularly for older people. All available evidence confirms what experience has already taught many of us: hiking provides an accessible, enjoyable full-body fitness boost.
Mental and Emotional Benefits of Hiking
Emotional and mental health are closely linked, and many older adults suffer from significant mental and emotional concerns. Limited activity and restricted movement don’t just affect the body. They also create isolation and loneliness and place stress on relationships. Sedentary lifestyles are closely associated with anxiety, depression, mental fatigue, and stress, and outdoor activity has numerous proven beneficial effects on mental and emotional health. Studies of physically active older adults confirm these and other positive impacts from time spent on the trail.
- A measurable decrease in reported feelings of depression and isolation.
- Increased cognitive function.
- Better scores on memory tests.
- Improved reaction time.
- Higher levels of self-esteem.
- Enhanced problem-solving capacity.
- Reduced stress and anxiety.
- Diminished repetitive negative thoughts.
Again, these conclusions are not based on anecdotes or observations. A large body of scientific research confirms what many hikers already know: walking in nature has real, measurable benefits to mental and emotional health.
Social Benefits of Hiking
Hiking can be as social as you want it to be. We’ll often choose to hike with other people because it can be safer and it’s often more enjoyable. We may also look for time alone with nature, especially as we gain experience and confidence. Sometimes we’ll set out alone and make friends along the way. However you approach your outdoor time, hiking has the potential to relieve the social isolation and limited social interaction that afflict many people as they age.
Hiking exposes us to like-minded people
Whether our hiking buddies are old friends, new friends we met on the trail, or people we met through a local or online hiking group, hikers are a self-selected group of people who love the outdoors and who value their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. Building and holding a positive attitude is easier when you’re with a group of people who have positive attitudes.
Hiking builds family and relationship bonds
Not all of us have partners or families who hike. For those who do, hiking can be a welcome activity that brings partners and multiple generations of families together. If your family or your younger relatives don’t already hike, don’t write them off as possible trail companions. Try inviting them on an easy outdoor excursion. They may thank you, and you might be surprised to find that they enjoyed it more than expected and want to go out again and again. Spending time together outdoors in a natural environment brings people together in ways that are very hard to build at home or in the city.
Hiking allows you to interact face to face
Whether you’re with relatives, old friends, or new friends, when you’re on the trail you’ll be face to face, experiencing a natural environment in a position that leaves you open to all kinds of non-verbal cues. In an age dominated by screen time, social media, and virtual friendships, those periods of undistracted physical presence have enormous value.
Hiking puts us in contact with people of all ages
As we age it’s easy to let our social circles narrow until we are only spending time with people of our own generation. On the trail, we’ll be around people of all generations, in a culture and environment that fosters open, non-judgmental communication and interaction. Old or young, people who love the outdoors have an immediate base for bonding and the friendships that come from time spent together in nature can open a whole range of new relationships.
If you don’t have a group to hike with, don’t worry. Hikers are usually social people, and there are hiking groups in almost every area with hiking trails. Some are senior-specific, some welcome members of all ages. They aren’t difficult to find and many will introduce you to people who can easily become lifetime friends.
Hiking Is Fun!
There’s one simple truth that links all of these benefits together and unlocks all of the ways in which they can help us: hiking is fun.
There are lots of ways to exercise, build muscles, and improve cardiovascular strength. There are lots of ways to exercise our minds. If those ways aren’t fun, very few of us will have the will-power to stay with them and persist long enough to gain the full benefit. Walking on a treadmill might deliver much of the same benefit as walking on a trail, but who looks forward to time on a treadmill, or stays on one any longer than necessary?
Hiking is fun, and many of us quickly come to crave it after we first set foot on a trail. Time spent in nature is never wasted: there’s always something new to see and experience even on the most familiar trail.
Combine hiking with a hobby like photography or birdwatching or just hike for the sake of hiking, and you’ll soon want to hike at every opportunity and keep every hike going as long as possible. The joy of hiking opens and expands all of the benefits, because it’s not work, it’s play!