Hiking can be an enlightening and often life-altering hobby. Many people worldwide chose to hike, not only for the physical benefits but for the mental and emotional benefits and this is just the start of how thru hiking changes you.
Hiking is an aerobic activity that can improve cardiovascular health, build endurance and lean muscle mass. Taking time out in nature is also proven to reduce stress, release endorphins, and reduces the risk of a number of diseases such as type II diabetes and high blood pressure. Hiking can also improve memory and improve mental health.
There are so many benefits to not only thru-hiking but increasing the time you spend outdoors in general. In fact, it is recommended to spend at least 20 minutes per day outside to boost mental health (source). Although many only think of the physical benefits when they think of hiking, this article will also discuss the lifestyle and mental benefits you will experience from hiking.
What is Thru-Hiking?
Thru-hiking is basically hiking that follows an established end-to-end trail. This can often be long-distance hiking, but it is always a marked route. Oftentimes when people think of thru-hiking, it seems overwhelming because they think it has to be a treacherous and difficult trail, which is not the case.
Many people who are starting to get into hiking will find nearby hikes using apps/websites such as AllTrails. Apps like this will show you nearby trails and mountains to hike, complete with reviews, difficulty, trail conditions, and photos.
Using free resources to find hikes nearby extremely helpful to take the unknown out of your hiking. You will know what to prepare for, how long the hike will take you, and any issues or raving reviews people have recently posted. This makes it easy to get into the hiking scene and avoid accidentally starting on a hike that may be too difficult for you.
The beauty of thru-hiking is being able to choose what kind of landscape you want to see or hike to. Depending on where you live, you may have less variety; however, with these predetermined trails, you can decide if you want to hike to a lake, to the top of a mountain, through a dense forest, or along a rock face. This gives you the freedom to see what you want.
Many people take up hiking for the physical benefits they receive. Hiking is often used as an alternative for going to a gym, running, or doing any other form of exercise. For those who are in it for the exercise component, here are some of the top benefits:
- Hiking is a great cardio workout which can promote fat loss
- Build strength in your muscles. Some of the primary regions that you will work when hiking includes your: glutes, quads, hamstrings, lower leg, and hip muscles.
- Strengthen your core muscles.
- Improve your balance and coordination.
Hiking can not only help you control your weight, but can also build the lean muscles listed above from stepping up, walking on an incline, and walking for prolonged periods of time. However, if you are not looking to get into hiking for fitness reasons, there are a number of other physical benefits to consider:
- Hiking lowers your risk of heart disease because of the cardiovascular nature of the hobby
- Improves your blood pressure and blood sugar levels
- Walking is a weight-bearing exercise and therefore will boost bone density
- Can lower your risk for illnesses such as type II diabetes
These are serious benefits that have huge impacts on welfare and overall health regardless of age. Picking up hiking as a hobby can help you get in shape and keep your body healthy, inside and out.
Keep in mind that it will take your body a period of time to adjust to a new form of exertion and walking long distances. The first few weeks of frequent hikes may be a challenge for you as your body adjusts. After about a month of consistent hiking, your body will get into a rhythm and understand that long-distance walks have become the norm.
There has been an increasing amount of research on the benefits of not only hiking but spending more time outdoors and in nature. Being in nature is not only good for your physical health but for your brain health.
Time spent outside can have a huge impact on our ability to focus and feel content in our lives. It is important to take time away from screens and offices to step into nature. Our brains can only focus on words, screens, and intense work for a limited amount of time until it needs to recharge.
Even when you look out your window at nature you can feel your eyes and face relax, this is the effect you get when you spend more time outdoors.
This can increase your productivity in your work life and promote mental health. This effect is amplified when you get involved in hiking. With the mental benefits you will gain from your hiking practice, you will feel like a completely changed person!
A Boost in Energy
Spending time outside is known to boost your natural energy levels. The energy gained from spending twenty minutes spent outside has been compared to drinking one cup of coffee! By increasing the amount of time you’re spending outside, you may be able to reduce your caffeine consumption and soak up the natural benefits of nature instead.
Our eyes are often forced to focus on screens for long periods of time, which can be hard on vision. Long periods of exposure to screens can cause eyesight to decrease, often creating a need for glasses. Getting out into nature allows your eyes to relax and for your brain to focus on visual stimulation, which can, in turn, benefit your vision.
The psychological benefits received from hiking are endless. Taking the time to get outside and the hike can increase your attention span, which in turn will benefit your performance in school, work, or any projects you may be working on. In addition to an increased attention span, you are likely to experience an increase in your problem-solving skills.
On top of honing your problem-solving skills, you are likely to experience an improvement in your memory. With decreased stress on your brain, you will have more capacity for memory functions. Finally, your quality of sleep is likely to improve as you get more involved in hiking.
Improved sleep is partly attributed to the release of physical energy, exhausting your body and encouraging deeper sleep for muscle healing. Another factor in sleep quality is the pace at which your brain is running and how high your stress levels are. Hiking will slow you down, release anxiety and stress, and improve positive thought, which in turn promotes healthy sleep patterns.
Exposure to Sunlight
Sunlight has a number of benefits, getting a dose of vitamin D is a huge benefit to spending time outside; however, studies have also shown that being exposed to sunlight can reduce stress and pain. There have been a number of studies conducted on the benefits of sunlight on progressive disease pain and post-surgical pain.
With this benefit, those who experience pain for any reason can potentially cut back on pain medication or the burden of continued pain with the choice of spending more time outdoors.
Immune System Benefits
A boost in your immune system—many scientists believe that breathing in chemicals produced by plants, such as phytoncides, can increase white blood cell levels. White blood cells help our bodies fight off infections and diseases. This is a major benefit year-round as flu season comes and goes.
A boost in the immune system is also going to play a major role for those working closely with children, animals, or other beings that may increase the chance of picking up extraneous bacteria or viruses.
Natural outdoor smells can promote relaxation—there’s a reason aromatherapy uses natural ingredients and mimic natural scents. The majority of candles, lotions, essential oils, etc. intended to create smells that you would find outside because smelling plants, flowers, grass, and pine have a calming effect.
By spending an increased amount of time outdoors, you will be able to enjoy a variety of scents and benefits without spending any money.
The more time you spend outside, the more you may experience an enhancement in your creativity. Spending some time outside can help with writer’s block, artistic ruts, and an overall lack of creativity. Stepping away from electronics or the activity you are attempting to complete to spend time in nature can benefit your goals in the long run!
Your motivation, creativity, and inspiration will feel heightened after spending periods of time outdoors and enjoying your natural surroundings rather than trying to work through any work frustrations you may be experiencing.
Reduces Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD)
Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depending highly on where you live. This form of seasonal depression is due to shorter days and less light during the winter months. Symptoms can include anxiety, exhaustion, and sadness. Even if the weather is not sunny or warm, spending time outside can significantly reduce these symptoms.
When these symptoms may be coming up, taking a walk outside and appreciating nature can stimulate an increase in serotonin, boosting happiness.
Vitamin D Benefits
Getting your dose of vitamin D is critical for proper body function. It enables us to absorb calcium, which improves bone health, reduces the risk of osteoporosis and reduces inflammation. We get 90% of our vitamin D from exposure to the sun; however, beware of skin damage from the sun. Always wear sunscreen and sunglasses during prolonged exposures to keep your body safe.
This study has shown that those who ruminate on negativity in their lives are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.
By focusing on the negative aspects of your life, you are changing the way your brain is functioning and decreasing your susceptibility to having self-deprecating and harmful thought patterns.
In fact, researchers found that spending time out in nature has a direct impact on obsessive thoughts. If you walk or hike in natural spaces (outside of urban development) you will have less negative thoughts and ruminate on the stressors in your life less often and less intensely.
This study also found that lower levels of rumination also reduced the neural activity taking place in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is directly related to the development of mental illnesses.
By reducing the activity in this part of the brain, we are directly aiding in the management of any existing conditions and reducing the risk of developing any future conditions.
As the world becomes more developed and urban spaces are expanding, it is especially important to get out into nature via trail hiking to ensure a healthy brain and lifestyle.
On top of the benefits listed above, if you suffer from anxiety, taking up hiking can be an amazing addition to your current mental health practices. Many people find that stepping out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life to explore a new trail and get in touch with nature reduces the symptoms of anxiety.
The practice of breathwork and meditation have also been found extremely successful in combatting anxiety and other mental health disorders that may loom over your everyday life. These are practices that can be used in combination with hiking for even more visible life changes and positivity.
Oftentimes, spending time outside in nature can motivate one to be more mindful and embrace a more spiritual perspective of the world. It is common to hear that people can achieve a high while running where they can run in a meditative state and completely clear their minds of being tired, or of the stresses of their everyday lives.
The same can be achieved while hiking. While hiking, you are likely to see some beautiful views, wildlife, and plants that can help you forget about your daily stressors and tasks that you may be needing to complete back at home or at work. Getting lost in your environment and feeling overcome with a feeling of calm bliss can be a lifechanging feeling.
This is one of the most noticeable changes hiking will bring into your life. An overwhelming calmness that you are able to bring into the rest of your life. This will set you up more positively for your workweek, for any stressors in your life, and for other self-care practices that you practice in your everyday life.
Being physically and mentally healthy combine into creating a healthy lifestyle. Those who not only spend time exercising to ensure a healthy body but also spend time being mindful and taking care of their mental health will overall live a happier and healthier life.
Hiking can be a time-consuming hobby, depending on where you live. Oftentimes, you may need to drive a little way to reach a trail. Because of this, a lot of people do not have time to go on hikes after a workday, or during their workweek.
A great way to integrate hiking into your life as a hobby is to dedicate a few hours or a full day to hike on your weekends. Designating one day per week, every other week, or per month to take time to get outside and go on a hike can significantly improve your lifestyle.
For many, hiking can replace more unhealthy habits. If you are spending more time hiking, you may engage less in unhealthy behaviors such as consumption of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. You may also get more sleep and higher quality sleep due to the fatigue in your body after physical exertion. By simply increasing your time engaging in hiking, you can change your entire lifestyle.
Fueling Your Body
A really important thing to keep in mind whether you’re doing a day hike or hiking for six months straight is the food you are fueling with. Many people have the perception that if you are packing food you need dried out foods that are light, nutrient-dense, and easy to eat. That is not true and may actually be detrimental to your energy levels and health!
Eating whole, fresh, and healthy foods is going to benefit your body the most. Bringing foods you enjoy, whether that’s coffee, beer/wine, cheese, apples… if you are giving your body the tools it needs to be successful you will perform better. Most avid hikers have had more positive experiences when carrying extra weight in order to eat proper and healthy diets.
While this is especially important for longer, and more intense hikes, it is critical to get into the practice of eating well and packing smart for your hikes. If you are not practicing healthy habits in your everyday life and only eat healthily while on hikes, you still will not feel properly fueled for your trip.
As you get more involved in hiking and start to feel the benefits of spending an increased amount of time outdoors, you may be motivated to switch over to a cleaner diet preference. While most do not get involved in hiking for residual lifestyle changes such as a healthier diet, it is a huge benefit.
Spending more time outside allows more fresh air to get into your body, an increase in endorphins, and an elevated mood. With this, you will see a shift in craving more healthy and nutrient-dense foods. As your body is more active, it needs more vitamins and nutrients to keep going. Many avid hikers will see an increase in the consumption of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains.
With a switch to a healthier and more natural diet, you will see a huge lifestyle change and life improvement. Changing over to a healthier diet will improve your body composition, energy levels, organ function, and cognitive functions.
Connection With Loved Ones
Oftentimes, we connect with our friends and families via technology; however, to invite a loved one on a hike is to step away from technology and connect with them on a deeper level. This encourages them to also step away from any unhealthy habits they may carry in their lives and inspire them to harness some of the benefits hiking can offer.
Just as hiking has the ability to change your habits, whether it be an unhealthy relationship with food, alcohol, or tobacco, by encouraging loved ones to pick up hiking as a hobby they may also be able to step into a healthier lifestyle.
By pushing for companionship on your hikes, you will be able to develop deeper and more meaningful connections with the people in your life. This is an incredible change that hiking will bring into your life as it will aid you in nurturing the relationships that are most important to you.
Being More Environmentally Conscious
Getting out in nature can often help you clear your head and feel more connected to the natural world. As a hiker, it is important that you are not taking away from the beauty of the area, causing destruction, or leaving any sign of exploration.
Hiking can change your outlook on protecting the natural world and making tangible differences in the health and cleanliness of your environment.
Whatever you pack into a hike, expect to also pack out. Any food that is brought on your hike that has wrappers or disposable materials should not be left on the trail. All garbage and debris should be taken back down the hike with you and properly disposed of. As a hiker, it is your responsibility to keep the areas you visit clean and pristine for others to visit.
If too much debris is left in a certain area, it is likely to be closed off to the public or switched to more limited access. This makes it harder for others to enjoy its beauty. The same goes for taking things from the hike or being destructive. The saying “leave nothing but footsteps” rings true for hiking as well.
Be sure you are not taking rocks, plant matter, animals, etc. out of their natural environments. Leave things the way you found them and avoid uprooting any plants, walking over any plants or harassing any wildlife while you are visiting their homes.
If you are a responsible hiker, you will ensure that you and others will be able to enjoy the areas you are visiting for years to come. This mindset will also be carried with you throughout your life. It will change you to be more conscious and aware of the plight our planet faces with pollution, plastic waste, and doing your part to be sustainable.
These small practices you implement on your hikes can change you to get more involved in cleanups and advocating for natural spaces and environmental protection.
By connecting deeper with the natural world, you become an advocate for it. This is a change that is so powerful right now, as we are in desperate need of more people advocating for the earth.
Final Thoughts on How Thru Hiking Changes You
Whether you have just picked hiking up as a hobby or have been frequenting the trails around you for years, thru-hiking can have huge impacts on your life. Unlike many other forms of exercise, hiking can be a spiritual experience that can bring you peace in endless ways.
Bringing you more harmony in your everyday life and increase your connection with the natural world.
If after reading this article, you are not sold on the idea of spending long periods of time in the wilderness or physically exerting yourself as much as you would need to in a hike, that’s ok! The most important thing to remember is that spending time outdoors has so many physical and mental benefits that you should be taking advantage of.
If you don’t want to go out on a hike, why not take a walk outside during your lunch break. Go on a picnic in a nice park once a week during the summer or choose to work in an outdoor space instead of staying cooped up all day in a windowless office. Aligning yourself with more nature can improve your life and make you much healthier in all senses.
Even spending short amounts of time outdoors every day can offer endless health benefits and can be a huge boost in mood. However, if you have never gotten out into nature and experienced the joy of hiking and this article has sparked your interest and has encouraged you, give it a try!
Start with something smaller and more local, bring a friend along to make it fun and take it slow. You may be pleasantly surprised by how great you feel and how the experience has pushed you to try new things. Stick with it, encourage your friends and family to join in with you, and see where this hobby can take you.
Hiking is a great activity to do with your loved ones as it encourages you to step away from your technology and really connect not only with each other but with nature.