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Fitness & Performance

4 Health Benefits of Hiking and Exercising Outdoors

David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute January 23, 2024

In today's fast-paced world, finding solace in the great outdoors can be a transformative experience, improving your physical and mental well-being. Disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature gives our brain a much-needed recharge.

Hiking is a great way to get fresh air, especially if you live in urban areas. Several studies indicate there are real benefits to exercising outdoors and hiking for overall health.

Here are four benefits on why hiking is good for your health:

1. Build Bone Density.

Hiking is a weight-bearing exercise, which means your bones and muscles work harder against gravity. This helps your body build or maintain bone density, which is critically important as we age.

Studies show bone density declines about 1% a year after age 40. Getting outdoors for a hike could have a positive impact in helping to slow down this loss. The CDC also recommends 30 minutes of physical exercise such as brisk walking, five days a week.

As an added bonus, hiking outdoors brings you a dose of vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, which we need for bone health.

2. Improve Sleep Quality.

A long hike in nature can not only inspire a post-hike recovery nap, but recent research suggests it may improve overall sleep quality.

In a 2017 study published in “Current Biology,” University of Colorado Boulder researcher Kenneth Wright measured subjects’ sleep cycles before and during a weekend camping trip. During the trip, when subjects were exposed to natural light only (no electronics), their melatonin levels increased and their internal clocks shifted earlier. The study suggests being around nature helps us shift to a natural sleep cycle.

3. Boost Happiness.

Physical exercise promotes the release of endorphins, a brain chemical that triggers positive feelings. Hiking, however, can improve our mood even more than a regular walk in the neighborhood.

Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman assigned 60 people to either a 50-minute walk in the woods or a walk along paved roads. Results showed that the nature walkers experienced less anxiety and rumination, as well as more positive emotions than the urban walkers.

Want some happiness extra credit? Hike with a friend or two. Social interaction, especially with people with whom you have a strong bond, is an important ingredient for happiness and well-being.

4. Combat Depression.

The vitamin D obtained from exposure to sunlight, which is crucial for maintaining strong bones, also helps in fighting against depression. According to a critical review of 61 studies, there seems to be a correlation between depression and vitamin D deficiency. Those who had the lowest levels of vitamin D had the greatest risk of depression, and those who were depressed had lower levels of vitamin D.

Vitamin D deficiency symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Slow wound-healing bone and/or muscle pain
  • Depression

Participants experienced substantial improvements in depression symptoms after receiving treatment for vitamin D deficiency.

In another study, Stanford researchers found that subjects who walked in nature for 90 minutes had increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression and anxiety when deactivated. The finding suggests hiking in nature positively impacts mood.

Why Hike with Friends: The Role of Social Support

Exercise is already known to have many benefits for mental health, but a recent study found the positive influence that joining a group to work out can have on reaching goals. The National Institutes of Health reviewed various studies that connect the benefits of social support to improved health and well-being.

Regular nature hikes strengthen our heart, lungs and muscles, as well as our mind. And going with friends can also reap healthy benefits. So the next time you reach the top of a hill at the end of a dirt path, pause to admire the view and appreciate all you’re doing for your health and happiness.