Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Benefits of Hiking

Huntington Beach Central Park, 2010

Walking is my favorite form of exercise.  Jim and I walk the trails that meander through the city as often as we can.  We also love to head for the mountains to hit the trails there for some hiking.  It feels awesome to get outside, breathe in some fresh air, and get the heart pumping with some serious moving about!  It wakes me up, gives me more energy, improves my mood, clears my head, and just makes me feel good all the way around. But those are only a few of the very real benefits of hiking.  Read on for more.
Regular aerobic exercise provides many health benefits.  Hiking is a great form of aerobic exercise.  Some of the benefits include:
  • Boosted cardio-respiratory fitness (keeps your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy)*
  • Increased muscle
  • Ability to give pretty much your whole body a workout  
  • Reduced risk of stroke and heart disease (can help by lowering blood pressure)
  • Reduced risk of high blood pressure (it can lower blood pressure by 4-10 points)
  • Reduced risk of  type 2 diabetes* (for those with type 1 diabetes, walking reduces the amount of insulin needed by the body; for those with type 2 diabetes, exercise along with a healthy diet and weight loss can help reverse it.)
  • Reduced risk of high cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Reduced risk of cancers such as colon and breast
  • Improved bone density/hindered calcium loss*
  • Improved sleep*
  • Relief from depression**
  • Boosted imagination
  • Increased brain health (boosts mood, releases feel-good endorphins)
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced risk of dying prematurely
  • Weight control* (You burn an average of 100 calories per mile walked at a regular, comfortable pace.  Boost your pace, boost your calorie burn.)
  • Increased sense of well-being
  • Increased sense of accomplishment should you progress to tougher trails or hike for longer distances
You don't have to hike a lot to reap most of these benefits.  Just 30 minutes most days will do it (150 minutes of moderate activity per week is recommended, so moderate hiking.  You can talk but you can't sing.).  You can break it up into 10 minute bouts of exercise, too, if you don't want to or don't have time to complete your exercise routine in all one go.  Of course, challenging yourself as you become stronger will help provide even more benefits to your health.  Vigorous exercise, such as hiking uphill or with a backpack on your back, provides that challenge.  Shoot for 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise--you can only speak a few words at a time. 
Aerobic exercise is great, but you also should get 2 to 3 days of resistance training in per week.  Body weight, free weights, weight machines--choose the exercises that are the most fun and manageable for you.  Like aerobic exercise, gradually increase weight and/or repetitions as you get stronger.  You can also vary rest time between sets and speed to change up your workouts. 
  • If you have led a sedentary lifestyle, if you are 35 years old or older, or if you have a chronic health issue, consult your doctor before starting a new exercise program. 
  • Start out slowly if you are new to hiking or any other type of physical exercise.
  • Always listen to your body.  If you are having a tough time breathing, experiencing sharp pains, or feeling dizzy, stop exercising immediately and seek medical care.
  • Go your own speed.  Yes, it's good to be challenged, but don't go overboard or be a show off. 
  • Hike with others who are at about the same (or slightly higher) fitness level as you are.
  • Stay hydrated.  Drink plenty of water.  Check out the Mayo Clinic's recommendations in this article--> "Factors that Influence Water Needs." Also, bring some snacks such as nuts, dried berries, or trail mix with you.
  • Wear appropriate clothing and footwear.  I have seen people hiking canyons in flip flops.  Um, not smart.  Invest in a quality pair of hiking boots.  Your feet and ankles will thank you.  Wear layers in winter, and loose, cool clothing during the warmer months.  Might be a good idea to wear bright colors too.
  • Bring a walking stick to help keep your balance on tougher terrain.
  • Bring bright rags or some other appropriate items to mark your trail to help avoid getting lost.
  • Hike with a buddy.  You never know what you'll encounter out there in the boonies.  It's nice to think of getting away from it all and hiking in solitude, but it's not very smart.  Find  a place closer to home where you can go for that alone time instead. 
  • Let others know where you're going and when you plan to return. 
  • Bring a cell phone with you, but be aware that it may not work depending on where you decide to hike.
You may want to invest in a pedometer to keep track of your walking and hiking progress.  It can be a lot of fun and provide motivation to see how many steps you take each day or during each hike.
Are you a hiker?  Or are you just thinking about getting into it?  What are some tips that have helped make your ventures out into nature more fun, safe, and fulfilling?

*Also seen in children who get regular aerobic exercise.  **May occur in children who get regular aerobic exercise.

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