Sarah Kemp, Health and Wellbeing Programme Manager at AXA Health

Benefits of hiking

Step outside and feelgood!

21 October 2020

Tree hugger

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The great outdoors is a powerful place. In today’s world where we crave moments of calm and seek out opportunities to de-stress, going for a hike can be a great way to do both and improve our overall health at the same time. While yoga is well known for its combination of physical and mental health benefits, it’s often missing the magic ingredients that hiking offers – fresh air and nature. With more people giving hiking a go, health and wellbeing programme manager at AXA Health, Sarah Kemp, explains the benefits, and precautions to take, before you pull on your walking boots and head outdoors [1].

What are the key benefits of hiking?

  • It’s a fantastic way to improve cardiovascular health and give your whole body a good workout. Sarah highlights that “because hiking is across undulating terrains, we have to use our stabiliser muscles and the upper body really comes in to play. Hiking offers a much more full-bodied workout than walking, especially with a hilly route, as it’s stressing the cardiovascular system while also working your glutes (bottom muscles) and quads (upper leg muscles) to manage the terrain”. While walking is great, hiking provides a more physically challenging style of workout, and its varying nature means it works the body harder.
  • The mental health benefits of hiking are plentiful. A study carried out in 2009 at the University of Rochester shows that humans prefer to be surrounded by natural environments [2]. Gladwell et al. highlight that “nature provides an environment that does not require our direct attention, giving nature restorative properties therefore allowing recovery from mental fatigue and attention restoration”[3]. Ultimately, partaking in physical activity outside in the fresh air is good for our mental health; it allows us to de-stress and reduces the risks of depression and the feelings of anxiety. Sarah says “as humans we’re naturally drawn to outdoor spaces, with hiking providing a cathartic experience”. Add in switching off from technology and putting the world to rights with your hiking companion as you go, and it’s easy to see how going on a hike can have hugely positive impacts on our mental health.

  • Bone health is also supported with hiking due to the activity’s low impact on bones, as it doesn’t stress the joints in the same way as running does.  This makes it an ideal activity for later in life when bone density naturally starts to decrease and you’re looking for an alternative to high impact activities.

  • It’s very inclusive. Hiking is a physical activity that suits a huge range of people, more so than exercises with a higher impact like running, which may not be suitable for those who are losing bone density or have mobility issues.

  • It’s always available – and free! The outdoors never goes away and the possibilities of where to explore are endless. though of course it’s important to abide by any restrictions currently in place.

  • It can also be a sociable form of exercise. Going with others, be that a partner, a friend or the whole family, can make it an enjoyable way to fit more activity into your day, which means you’re more likely to stick at it. Again, please be sure to adhere to the current guidelines.

  • It’s important to keep your exercise regime varied to avoid getting stuck in a rut and Sarah suggests hiking as an alternative exercise for regular gym goers who feel their routine may have plateaued a little. “Hiking can be a great alternative to build up your strength in a different way to being in the gym. A 30-minute hike on active recovery days would be enough to flush out the built-up lactic acid in your lower body muscles”.

  • It’s a really adaptable form of exercise. Whether you want a short, flatter 30-minute hiking route or (are physically fit enough for!) a four-hour hike in the hills that really tests your fitness, hiking is something that everyone can take on. Plus, carrying a rucksack means you can add in some extra weight safely to really up the benefits.

While hiking offers a multitude of benefits, there are also precautions to take. This is especially the case if you’re new to it as an activity, have not exercised in a long time or have muscular or joint problems.

  1. Be realistic. As with any new form of exercise, don’t overestimate your capabilities. Start small and build up your distances or the type of terrain. This way you’ll help to prevent injury and not be put off from the first try – enjoying yourself is one of the best ways to ensure you are more likely to stick at something, so try not to overwhelm yourself on the first go!
  2. Set goals. To keep it challenging and give yourself something to work towards. Break things down into manageable chunks and remember to celebrate each time you go a bit further or a little rockier or for just making the time for yourself to get active, you deserve the recognition!
  3. Plan your route. This is really important. Not only so you don’t spend valuable hiking time trying to navigate your way, but for your safety and so that you know you're undertaking a route suitable for your ability. Maps are a great way to physically plan your route and you can take them with you (without relying on GPS!) to make sure you're going to right way.
  4. Tell someone. If you’re going alone, make sure others know where you’re going. If you get lost or injured (and don’t get any service on the phone, you’ll no doubt take for emergencies!) it’s vital someone knows where you are.
  5. Take rest breaks. Hiking can be a really rigorous form of exercise so making sure you take breaks is crucial – you don’t want to get halfway through and be absolutely exhausted! But if you are really working up a sweat, do be cautious when taking off a rucksack, as the rapid cooling down could cause a chill.
  6. Check the weather forecast. It may be fine when you set off, but the weather can change rapidly, making it potentially difficult to navigate and walking conditions more treacherous than you expected or were prepared for.

So, if you’re ready to go for a hike, there are a few things we recommend for your kit:

  • Hiking boots: be sure to break them in before you head off for hours, otherwise you won’t get too far! Sarah recommends to “start off small, on local and familiar terrain in order to break them in”. Having a good, sturdy pair of walking shoes is really important for protecting your ankles and providing sufficient grip over varying terrains.
  • Water: Keeping hydrated is of the upmost importance with any exercise. Be sure to take plenty of water and a little extra, just in case you don’t quite follow the map as intended!
  • Appropriate clothing: make sure it’s comfortable to walk in, breathable and suitable for any weather. Pack a raincoat even if it’s due to be a sunny day – being caught in a downpour without a waterproof certainly won’t help with the mindful moments you’re looking for!
  • Sunscreen: because exercising outside means sun exposure. Don’t forget to apply before you go and top up if you’re on a longer hike or day out.
  • A phone: not to be on, but as a safety net if something does go a little pear shaped.
  • High energy snacks: to keep your energy levels topped up as you go, and to have to refuel when enjoying the view!

Hiking is a great way to help boost our physical and mental wellbeing and could be just the thing if you think your journey to feelgood health lies in the great outdoors. Partaking in exercise like hiking that so effectively works both physical and mental health is a great way to workout your entire body and there are so many benefits to it. We know that everyone’s health journey is different and what you enjoy is totally unique, but ultimately enjoying yourself is what it’s all about.

If you’re feeling inspired to try hiking, why not let us know by sharing your hiking photos Instagram and tag us @axahealth!

Further reading

Osteoporosis and bone health - AXA Health
Tips to delay dementia and boost your brain power - AXA Health
Exercise and mental health benefits - AXA Health
Health benefits of walking - AXA Health
Benefits of group exercise - AXA Health

References

Instagram Hiking Report UK, Sports Shoes.com, 11th October 2018.
Weinstein et al. Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity. 2009.
3  Gladwell et al.: The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013 2:3.

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