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These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails

Kiera Carter has a decade’s worth of experience covering fitness, health, and lifestyle topics for national magazines and websites. In a past life, she was the executive digital editor of Shape and has held staff positions at Fit Pregnancy, Natural Health, Prevention, and Men’s Health. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Travel + Leisure, and more. She spends her free time boxing, traveling, and watching any movie or show with a strong female lead. She is currently based in New York.

Woman hiking

This outdoor workout builds muscle, boosts your brainpower, and activates happiness hormones. So what are you waiting for? Head to the trail and reap the benefits of hiking, pronto.

Take a Hike

Woman hiking

You don’t need to go hard-core rugged to net the many benefits of hiking. “Think of hiking as simply taking a longer walk in nature; you can hike at any pace, at any elevation, and for any number of miles, hours, or even days,” says Alyson Chun, a senior instructor for the REI Outdoor School, which offers classes and getaways focused on the great outdoors. No matter how tricky (or easy) your trail, every hike has its perks. First, even a moderate one-hour hike can burn around 400 calories, all while strengthening your core and lower body. And as the elevation goes up, so do the benefits of hiking. “The more challenging the hike, the more calories — and stress — you’ll melt away,” says Chun.

Major bonus: It doesn’t take a lot to get started. Unlike other outdoor sports that are gear heavy and often require travel and lessons, such as rock climbing and waterskiing, the barrier to entry-level hiking is low. “You really need only two key items: proper footwear and a day bag, ” says Chun. Find a trail near you using the AllTrails App or at Hiking Project, which features GPS and elevation data and user-generated tips for almost 14,000 beginner to advanced trails. (Just remember to download your route from the app to have it on hand for when you lose cell reception, as often happens in the wilderness.)

And if you already do quick jaunts on your neighborhood trails, maybe it’s time you experienced the next level of this natural high on a daylong trek. “Long-distance hikes open up a whole new world of terrain and boost your sense of accomplishment,” says Chun. Plus, fall is the perfect season to get going: fewer bugs! Gorgeous weather! Pretty leaves! Grab a granola bar (and all other hiking essentials) and set out to tap these powerful benefits of hiking. (And once you’re hooked, you can add hiking these picturesque National Parks to your fitness bucket list.)

Your Legs Will Feel Strong AF

Woman hiking on mountain

Most hikes involve climbing up a big hill or even a mountain, then coming back down, a combo that’s a great workout for your legs and one of the biggest benefits of hiking. “Trekking up a mountain is a lot like climbing the stairclimber or doing lunges over and over, which strengthens your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves,” says Joel Martin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise, fitness, and health promotion at George Mason University.

But traveling downhill is what really leaves your legs sore and strong. “To go downhill, your glutes and quads need to do a lot of slow, controlled work to stabilize your knees and hips so you don’t fall,” says Martin. “These types of contractions [called eccentric contractions; the same kind your muscles experience when you slowly lower a weight at the gym] damage muscle fibers the most because you’re resisting the force of gravity against weight, which in this case is the weight of your body.” This means that while you probably won’t huff and puff on the descent, your muscles aren’t getting a second to slack. (Don’t believe us? These hiking celebs are proof that it gets you fit and refreshed.)

Every Step Strengthens Your Core

Hikers on Moanalua Valley Trail, Oahu, Hawaii

Navigating tough terrain also requires your abs, obliques, and lower back to work to keep your body stabilized and upright — even more so if you’re carrying a backpack. “A heavier bag — around eight to 10 pounds — makes you more unstable, so your core muscles need to work harder,” says Martin. You’ll burn calories regardless (anywhere from 400 to 800 an hour, depending on the trail, he says), but your hiking bag can help you hit the high end of that range.

It’s Killer Cross-Training

Woman hiking

Whether you’re prepping for a race or you just want to round out your spinning routine, scheduling some hikes can improve your fitness level in ways that up your running and cycling game. “Cyclists tend to have strong quads but underdeveloped hamstrings, and runners tend to have weak hamstrings and glutes,” says Martin. “Hiking helps strengthen these muscles to eliminate those types of imbalances.”

Plus, if you hike regularly at high altitudes (4,000 feet and up), you’ll get used to exercising in a low-oxygen environment, he says, so your body will adapt to using less oxygen, which could lead to improved performance the next time you do a race. When 18 male endurance runners did high-intensity aerobic training in a low-oxygen state (9,842 feet above sea level) twice a week for six weeks, they increased the time it took for them to fatigue by 35 percent, while those who trained at sea level had an increase of just 10 percent, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found. One catch: “A single hike won’t have much of an effect; consistency is key,” says Martin. Start a habit and you might get those benefits of hiking. (

It Gets You Moving Better Around the Clock

Woman hiking through forrest

A lot of standard exercise — running, walking, lunging, squatting — moves you forward and backward or up and down. Hiking, on the other hand, forces you to move every which way, as you climb over fallen trees and sidestep slippery rocks. “By doing things that require you to move in multiple directions, you strengthen the stabilizing muscles that fire to prevent common injuries,” says Martin.

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Think about it: Most everyday injuries occur when people quickly shift from one plane of motion to another, such as when they reach over to pick up a heavy object and pull a back muscle. If you’re not used to moving this way, other muscles will try to compensate for weak stabilizers, resulting in poor form and potentially a pull, a pop, a tear, or a break. (

It’s a Happy Pill

A hike on the Solheimajokull glacier

Know that “mmm. ah!” feeling you get when you see a beautiful waterfall or gaze out from atop a mountain? Research shows that such experiences benefit your state of mind: People who spent 50 minutes walking through nature reported less anxiety and more happiness compared with those who walked near traffic, according to a study in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. “We know that just looking at photos of nature reduces stress,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (See every default desktop background ever.)

Even five minutes in nature can boost your mood and self-esteem, according to a review of studies by the University of Essex in England. And because exercise produces endorphins (known as the happiness hormone), actually moving through nature takes the feel-good benefits to a new level. “Hiking creates a wonderful combination of less stress and more happiness,” says Whitbourne. (Bring these snacks along to boost your mood even more.)

It Beats Bonding at the Bar

Group of friends hiking in the mountains

Working toward a unified goal — like making your way through the woods with others — strengthens relationships and builds bonds. “Hiking usually involves solving little problems together [‘Uh, did we make a wrong turn?’], which makes you feel more accomplished as a group,” says Dustin Portzline, an American Mountain Guide Association–certified rock guide.”I always remember the people I hiked with more than anything else.”

No hiking buddy? No problem. Check for a hiking group in your area at Meetup or sign up for an outing with the REI Outdoor School to go with a pro and get this benefit of hiking. (Love working out with someone else? Try this bring-a-friend workout.)

You’ll Spend Less Time Worrying

Young Woman Enjoying Fresh Air On The Mountain Of Machu Picchu In Peru

A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that adults who took a 90-minute walk in nature reported ruminating (aka brooding) less than those who had strolled through the city. In addition, they showed less blood flow to the region of the brain associated with rumination, while the city group was unchanged. Researchers hypothesized that nature provided a focus away from negative, self-referential thoughts. As observers look to pinpoint the specific attributes of nature that make it such a “positive distraction,” the good news is that giving this green immersion a test-drive (and getting those benefits of hiking) is as close as your local park path.

It Builds Endurance — Without Leaving You Breathless

Woman hiking

Grab your backpack for a day hike, and you can expect to burn some 520 calories per hour (based on a 140-pound woman) — about the same as if you were running a 5 mph pace. But this benefit of hiking won’t seem that sweaty. “Exercising outdoors has been found to be easier in that you feel less fatigue or pain and can go faster and longer than if you were indoors,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., a co-author of Your Brain On Nature. (

Meanwhile, the built-in balance challenges and added resistance of taking on inclines are making your body stronger for other pursuits. “Hiking is a great way to build up your endurance without putting such a hard load on your body,” says Jax Mariash, a pro ultra-runner who hikes as part of her cross-training. “The slow miles also help build your stamina, so when you do long, flat runs, your legs just adapt under you with added speed.”

It Helps Reduce Stress

Friends hiking through the hills of Los Angeles

Need to clear your head? Hiking is the ultimate twofer. Research shows that exercise alone does wonders for your emotional balance, improving mental health and reducing stress. “You get double the benefit when exercising in nature,” says Dr. Selhub. “Walking in the wild has been described as being like putting a drop of morphine in your brain, in which the stress response is turned down along with stress hormones, and feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins increase.”

This benefit of hiking can be attributed to a mix of beneficial effects from the silent chemicals in the air that combat damaging compounds in the body to the awe that most people have in nature. A lower stress response also means less inflammation in the body, Dr. Selhub says, and “we know that inflammation is highly connected to a downward mood.” In short, get a green routine as a check on stress.

11 Benefits of Hiking for Health and Well-Being

Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

I’m going to get real with you here: I have not always been as healthy and active as I am today. Post-college, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, and I didn’t know the first thing about spending time in the outdoors. But I knew that I needed to change the direction my life was headed and that I wanted to spend more time outside. I inherently knew that there were a variety of benefits of hiking, so I said yes to hikes and backpacking trips with friends, and I pushed myself past my comfort zone – many times.

As my confidence grew, so did my outdoor skills and ability to go on longer hikes and more remote backpacking trips. Over time, I built a relationship with the outdoors that has truly transformed my life for the better.

Now, more than a decade later, hiking has everything to do with why I’m so enthusiastic about encouraging others to get outside. The benefits of hiking – for me – have been profound, and I think they can be for you, too.

So, why hike? There are the obvious benefits of hiking like good exercise and getting outside. However, the reasons to pursue hiking go far beyond the physical benefits (of which there are many), and extend to finding a healthier and happier life through the outdoors. I’ll also add that right now, having a strong immune system is more important than ever, and through hiking, you can bolster your body’s natural ability to fight off disease.

It has always been the mission of Bearfoot Theory to get people – everyday people – outside to enjoy nature and outdoor activities. If you’re new to outdoor adventures (check out our Hiking 101 Guide here) and want to reap some of the benefits of outdoor exercise, hiking is a great place to start.

Read on to learn more about the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of hiking


I’m going to start off by sharing some of the benefits of hiking to your physical health. While some of the physical benefits may be obvious – like weight loss – hiking has some surprising perks.

Hiking is good for the heart

Hiking is great for cardiovascular health. Even light hiking can raise the heart rate to a moderate level which helps improve aerobic fitness and endurance. Over time, your body adjusts to new fitness levels and you can hike longer, faster, and harder without feeling as fatigued or out of breath.

Hiking can also improve markers associated with cardiovascular health like blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol. Studies have shown that going on regular moderate hikes can significantly reduce hypertension, improve glucose tolerance, and decrease ‘bad’ cholesterol levels over time.

So if cardiovascular health is a concern for you, hiking can be a great way to improve your heart health!

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Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

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Hiking improves balance

I’ll start by sharing that balance hasn’t always been my strong suit, and crossing streams and boulder fields can give me anxiety. That’s one reason I love hiking with trekking poles. However, every time I challenge myself on that kind of terrain, I notice my balance improving, and by the end of summer, I’m much better at trusting my balance. But it isn’t just practice that makes perfect here. There is actually science behind this.

As you walk along a trail, your leg and core muscles are constantly engaging and contracting to provide stability and balance over uneven terrain. As these core stabilizing muscles strengthen over time, balance improves.

But it’s not just stabilizing muscles that improve balance. Hiking also helps increase proprioception, which is the mind’s awareness of the position and movement of the body in relation to its surroundings. As you hike, the brain is processing every rock and root and gauging what it will take to step over obstacles. With practice, the brain becomes more adept at judging these obstacles, and as a result, balance improves.

As we get older, it’s really important to keep working on balance in order to prevent falls. Hiking is a fun way to improve balance while spending time in the outdoors.

Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

Hiking helps build muscle

As we touched on above, one benefits of hiking is it helps build stabilizing muscles in the legs and core to improve balance. But hiking also strengthens other muscles of the body including the arms and back. In fact, hiking is great exercise for almost every major muscle group in the body! Walking uphill engages the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves while hiking downhill engages the ankles, hips, and core.

The arm and back muscles can be strengthened while hiking through the use of trekking poles or carrying a moderate to heavy pack. (Learn how to choose a good hiking pack here)

So if going to the gym isn’t your idea of fun, give hiking a try! It’s a great workout for the whole body and as we’ll talk about below, it’s a great way to calm the mind and release stress too.

Hiking can increase bone density

Bone density refers to the amount of bone mineral in your bones. High bone density is important for preventing broken bones and reducing risk for osteoporosis. High impact and weight-bearing activities like hiking help to improve bone density by strengthening the bone tissue.

But in order for these activities to be effective in increasing bone density, they need to be done at a moderate to high-level. For example, the physical impact of hiking up a steep trail is more beneficial to building bone density than hiking along a flat trail.

Hiking helps with weight loss

While this might not be everyone’s goal, if you do want to lose weight, hiking is a great way to do it. I lost nearly 40 pounds hiking and had a blast doing it (ok it wasn’t all fun, but it was worlds better than the gym).

The number of calories burned during a hike depends on a lot of factors like weight, gender, and aerobic intensity, but if you’re just starting out, even light hiking can result in gradual weight loss.

The recommendation for physical activity for adults is at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week. If your goal is weight loss, try starting out with three 50 minute hikes per week on a local trail.

I first started hiking back in 2006 when I spent a summer on the Big Island of Hawaii. It helped me lose weight and drastically improved my self-esteem.

Mental & Emotional Benefits of Hiking

Hiking eases stress and boosts mental wellbeing

There’s a lot of research supporting the notion that connecting with nature improves mental health and wellbeing. Whether we are taking in the spectacular glow of a sunset or gazing out at a field of wildflowers, these brief experiences of feeling “wowed” by nature can make us feel happy and less stressed.

Forest bathing is a good example. This Japanese practice involves taking a walk or hike in the woods as a way to reconnect with nature and disconnect from the digital world. Spending time in nature can evoke “a reduced sense of self-importance relative to something larger and more powerful” says Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. This feeling can melt away stress and elicit a more positive outlook on life.

In today’s world, stress and mental illness like depression and anxiety are part of everyday life for many people. But spending time in nature can help bring us back to the present and evoke a sense of calm and peace to our otherwise hectic lives.

Hiking allows us to unplug from technology

To expand on the previous point….We’ve become more reliant on technology than ever, and I don’t know about you, but in recent months my screen time has been at an all time high. While technology makes our lives a lot easier, it also comes with unintended consequences.

Living life through our phones and social media can result in anxiety and unhealthy comparison, not to mention being a huge time suck. Social media apps are designed to be addictive, so it’s important to keep this in balance and unplug once in a while…..and what better way than hitting the trail.

Turning off your phone and going for a hike is an opportunity to live in the present moment and disconnect from the pressures that we often feel when we are scrolling.

Hiking can improve your self esteem

When you do hard things, it might not feel great when we are doing them, but how good do you feel afterwards? When you challenge yourself, that sense of accomplishment can lead to improved self-esteem.

A 2010 study found that even 5 minutes of outdoor exercise can lead to you feeling more confident. So imagine how you’ll feel after a day on the trail. Hiking can lead you to feel stronger, more capable, independent, and ready to take on whatever the world throws at you.

Hiking can relieve insomnia and improve sleep

Research has shown that regular exercise can help relieve insomnia and improve sleep patterns. While scientists aren’t quite sure how or why exercise does this, it may have to do with its ability to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind so that the body and mind are able to relax.

Another theory is that being outside and getting natural light can affect sleep patterns. In his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson explains that exposure to sunlight – especially in the morning – is crucial to producing melatonin (the sleep hormone) at night.

So if you need another reason to start hiking, getting a good night’s sleep is a perfect excuse.

Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

Hiking improves memory and brain function

When you hike, blood flows to the brain, carrying with it oxygen and important nutrients. Studies have shown that this increased blood flow improves connections between neurons in the parts of the brain that are in charge of memory and cognitive function. Researchers found that older adults who exercised in short bursts had improved memory compared to those that didn’t.

Often we think we’re too busy with work to go hiking. We tell ourselves that we just need to power through at our computers and cross things off our to-do list. However, the science shows that getting exercise, especially outside, can help our focus and improve our ability to process information, ultimately making our time at our computer more productive.

Hiking builds community

Hiking is a great way to build community. Not only can it forge new friendships, but group activities provide social support and can offset feelings of doubt, worry, or fear.

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If you’re not sure where or how to find hiking partners, there are plenty of online resources like or local Facebook groups and organizations like Women Who Hike that host group hikes and outings. Other places to look are outdoor clubs like the Sierra Club or you could even sign up for an outdoor class through REI or enroll in an outdoor education program such as NOLS or Outward Bound.

If you’re craving more community in your life, giving hiking a try. It’s a great way to meet new friends and like-minded people.

Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

In the long run, making hiking a part of your life can improve your physical health and increase feelings of well-being, both socially and emotionally, which is a major antidote to the stressors of the modern world.

As your body and mind will show you, any time spent in nature is good for the soul. While the science certainly backs it up, the best proof is how you feel at the end of a hike: a smile on your face, tired limbs, and renewed after a great day outside.

Have you experienced any benefits of hiking? Share in the comments below!

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Hiking is a fantastic way to build strength, improve fitness, and cultivate mental health. Learn more about the physical and mental benefits of hiking.

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

6 comments on “ 11 Benefits of Hiking for Health and Well-Being ”

Hi Kristen, I have been resigned to essential work from home pandemic life. But I added Nordic pole walking/ hiking to alleviate back problems from tech work and I’m hooked!
I follow you because you are inspiring.

That’s wonderful Pat! Kristen will be so happy to hear that. We spend lots of time sitting and working online as well so balancing that with some movement outside is key!

Thanks Kristen Bor. People in the world smoke, drink, do drugs, gamble, have a vice, and keep going back to it to change their emotions, forget, feel good. For me i do not drink, smoke or do drugs, gamble, but I make my self hike almost eveyday to keep me sane and clean slate my mind. The most important thing to my success and keeps me going in life, is being able to hike and getaway and become focused on who I an and what I want to do. It really makes you happy.

Thank you for sharing a great article! It’s true- calories burned during a hike, but you need proper nutrition and diet to maintain your energy level. I am a dietitian available at for getting tips related to health, weight loss.

Hello, I am a 47 yo male and I find that hiking had helped mr physically and most importantly has helped mental health, particularly my anxiety, way better than any pill which just makes one lazy. I find your blog to be the most inspiring blog I read so please keep posting I look forward to it and how inspiring it is. KUDOS….

Health benefits of hiking: Raise your heart rate and your mood


Last month, I took a 7.5-mile hike near Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia. Thanks to a nearly 1,900 foot-elevation gain, my hike definitely gave me a good cardiovascular workout. But there may be some additional health benefits of hiking, as I learned from Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The nice thing about hiking is that it exists along an entire continuum, from a gentle walk on a flat wooded path to mountain climbing,” says Dr. Baggish. Nearly everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability, can find a hike that offers the right level of personal challenge. And hiking may even offer some unique physical and mental benefits, he says.

One benefit of hiking is more for the core

Like brisk walking, hiking is a good way to improve your cardiovascular fitness, particularly if your route includes some hills, which will force your heart to work harder. Taking a hike on the slightly uneven surface of a trail also provides a natural way to engage the core muscles in your torso and to hone your balance skills. “You usually don’t get that type of lateral motion from walking on a treadmill or riding a bike,” says Dr. Baggish.

However, if you have problems with stability or vision, using walking or trekking poles can give you an added level of security on uneven terrain. Use poles with a spiked metal tip when walking on dirt or grass. Plant the pole out in front of you as you walk to take a little pressure off your knee joints.

Going for a hike can offer natural stress relief?

Yet another benefit of hiking may be the restorative and stress-relieving powers of being outside in nature. A number of small studies hint that spending time in green space — nature preserves, woodlands, and even urban parks — may ease people’s stress levels. Giving the growing consensus that stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease risk, anything you can do to mitigate stress is likely helpful. In that realm, the benefits of hiking remain anecdotal, but outdoor enthusiasts tend to agree. “There’s a real sense of peace and composure you get from being outside and away from everything,” says Dr. Baggish, whose own passion is not going for hikes but running on trails in the rugged peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Here are his tips to take a and enjoyable hike:

  • Bring a map and hike with a partner. A companion is good for both company and safety. If you go alone, let someone know when you plan to return.
  • Wear hiking boots. Choose well-fitting footwear with good ankle support. Make sure to break them in with shorter walks so you don’t get blisters when you’re miles from a trailhead.
  • Stay hydrated. Don’t forget to take plenty of water along on your hike, especially in warm, sunny weather.

Finding trails near you

Looking for hiking venues? Local, state, and national parks are a good place to start. American Trails is a national nonprofit organization that supports local, regional, and long-distance trails for hiking and other uses; check the “Trails” tab to search by state to find hikes in your area.

About the Author

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio


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