The reward of being surrounded by nature is clear to anyone who is experiencing it. Soaring mountain peaks, clean air, vast distances to look across, the memories experienced while undertaking a hike can be priceless. But can the benefits of hiking be quantified? Is it just a simple “feel food” indulgence or does hiking actually improve health?
1. Hiking can improve the healthcare system
The following statistics are based on the United States but the results of the study are just as pervasive in Western Europe, maybe not to the extreme.
According the Center for Disease Control (CDC) half of Americans suffer from a chronic illness. A chronic illness is a preventable disease that can cause long lasting illness and even death. The most common causes of these afflictions are:
- Lack of exercise
Overeating and lack of exercise generally go hand-in-hand. Modern lifestyles make it easy to be unhealthy. Many jobs require sitting at a desk for long periods of time. Commuting in traffic involves sitting, computer work involves sitting, and then what do most people do when they get home? They sit in front of a computer, and sit some more. From screen to road to screen, habitual slothfulness is literally killing us.
On top of the lack of exercise, unhealthy food compounds the problem of 21st century living. Manufacturing has made processed food easy, cheap, and delicious. The convenience of packaged food fits perfectly into the desk-job lifestyle. It lets people eat while driving or sitting at a desk without needing to stop working.
When living a lifestyle of monotony and commuting, it is only natural to seek out vices that make escaping the lifestyle possible. Alcohol is easy to drink and its effects on the body are almost immediate. It slows people down, turns off negative emotions, and makes socializing easier.
Alcohol also destroys the liver and leads directly to fat production, it slows down a person’s metabolism. Hangovers, following a night of binge drinking, only increase a sedentary lifestyle.
Going out for a smoke break is one of the benefits of using tobacco. It relieves stress and creates social opportunities. Compared to alcohol, cigarettes don’t lead directly to fat production, if anything, they suppress hunger.
Tobacco does lead directly to lung cancer. One of the leading causes of preventable death is smoking cigarettes. It reduces a human’s ability to engage in physical activity and destroys the body from within.
Chronic Illnesses are a Drain on Healthcare
Because so many Americans are suffering from self inflicted illnesses, the costs of healthcare have spiraled out of control. If you live in a country with socialized medicine, then your tax dollars are directly subsidizing other people’s poor lifestyle decisions.
Wherever you live, our society and modern culture is slowly rotting from the inside out. Hiking provides one of the solutions to the problem.
The benefits of hiking and how can it help you and your health
So what are the benefits of hiking and how can it help you and your health? The simple act of taking long walks in the woods can be the exercise most people need. I have a hypothesis as to why exercise is now a foreign concept to our lifestyle. I believe it is because we now live in urban areas and suburbs, far removed from the forests that we once called home.
Few people take pleasure in walking a sterile sidewalk past rows of manufactured homes. Spending hours at a time becoming lost in a city is not a peaceful experience. Of course, we have withdrawn to our artificial screens and live lives locked to chairs. The alternative, exploring suburbia, is dreadful.
But hiking is the panacea. A person can walk for hours inside a beautiful forest and not feel as if the day was wasted. Getting lost and exploring wide open spaces is much more rewarding than being in a city. It is my personal opinion that healthcare costs could be alleviated if we encouraged more hiking and outdoor activity. This if probably the biggest of the benefits of hiking.
2. Hiking Encourages Community
Finding activities that allow for group participation is always hard to do. As our lives are increasingly controlled by employer demands and general busyness, carving out social time becomes more valuable. Going on a hike is wonderful method of setting aside a few hours of personal time.
Being isolated in the woods or mountains with a group of close friends lubricates the conversation. The ultimate hiking experience is when electronics do not work. Forced into a scenario where modern conveniences are not available, something deep awakens within an individual. It creates group bonds that are stronger than any that could be formed from behind a computer screen. A sense of community along the trail is one of the biggest benefits of hiking.
According to a study by NPR, the use of social media correlates to the feeling of loneliness. Technology has not supplanted our need for interaction, if anything, it has exasperated it. While there may be other solutions to solving the loner issue, hiking is an excellent one.
3. Increase Conservation and Wild Land Preservation
People “vote with their feet”. Where ever people are going or what they do shows what is most important to their lives. If we are to conserve open spaces and dedicate chunks of our planet to be wild, people must physically visit the locations.
If visitation to the National Parks suddenly dropped, our society would have no reason to preserve them. The Idaho Centennial Trail is an example of what happens when people do not recreate. The trail, a rugged, 1,000 mile path through America’s largest wilderness has been nearly forgotten about by the hiking community. The path is overgrown in many areas and hiking is nearly impossible in sections. Advocates are now asking for more hikers, simply to bring the trail attention and perhaps, some much needed love.
Our economic system rewards organizations, businesses, and places by how much value they can create. Hiking in the woods shows how valuable that space is. On top of that, clothing brands have capitalized on our love of the outdoors. If we didn’t hike, there is a good chance that we would have lost our most wild landscapes years ago. A big one among the benefits of hiking!
4. Mental Relaxation
As the great Bob Marshall said,
“In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity. It is only the possibility of convalescing in the wilderness which saves them from being destroyed by the terrible neural tension of modern existence”.
The average American devotes more than 10 hours a day to a screen. This shocking statistic accounts for the time spent on our smartphones, in front of laptops, at work, and increasingly, even in our cars. It is no wonder that we are miserable and unhappy with how we spend our time. One of the benefits of hiking is to help reduce this dependence on screens and help us and our brains relax.
Never Ending Marketing and Stress
Constantly consuming content, videos, stories, music, social media, our brains never have an off switch. We are stimulated to the point that it is hard to sleep at night. Hiking offers reprieve from the screens, from the barrage of information. Entering the wild lets us finally relax.
It is almost ironic how humanity’s perception of the wilderness has changed throughout time. For most of our existence, untamed lands were feared, full of wild animals and dangerous terrain. Now, the world that we have built is awash with empty calories and time wasting activities. The wilderness now offers a place to relax, away from stress.
5. Hiking is Good for the Children
It must not be understated how important outdoor activities are for the development of children. Outdoor activities stimulate brain development with both exercise and exposure to different terrain. Children crave activities that allow for the opportunity to test the world they find themselves in. Therefore hiking offers a truly magical element where a kid can learn about the world around them and their own limitations.
There is no app or computer game that can teach a child what going on a hike can. One of the benefits of hiking with children is that it also presents an opportunity for parent-child bonding, with both individuals engaging in a fun activity. Especially in today’s world, with modern conveniences and shrinking physical activities in public schools, raising a child in an outdoors setting will give them a well rounded upbringing.
Hiking is also great for fighting childhood obesity. Kids who are addicted to sugary food and video games have a hard time staying motivated to exercise. Introducing them to the wonders of the outdoors can quickly become a more exciting game than any computer can offer. The outdoors can be construed as the analog version of life, as compared to the digital one.
6. Going on a Hike Reminds us we are Human
If we spend most of our time on this planet working for someone else or running from an appointment to the next, we soon forget why we are here in the first place. Driving large automobiles that run on gasoline and can drive at speeds well over 100 mph make us feel like a god.
Falling on a rock, slipping into a cold stream, or fighting over mosquitoes provide a more visceral experience. Even the bad parts about hiking still make us feel alive and can still be seen as one of the benefits of hiking.. If we numb our senses with constant reward and pretend our time is better spent behind the wheel of a car, then we miss out on life itself.
Being surrounded by natural wonders instead of man-made environments electrifies our bodies. We can interact with the earth, feel the weather, and take shelter from a storm. Because that’s what we are, humans. We are part of an ecosystem and that is easy to forget when being surrounded with modern conveniences.
7. Many Little Adventures Make Life one big Adventure
Every hike conducted is a small adventure. The unknown of going outside and exploring a park, traversing a mountain, or even going camping is intoxicating. What other activity can provide so much freedom with so little investment?
It is easy to become caught up in in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Family matters, groceries, work, bills, all necessary but none are necessarily exciting. Without hiking, our lives would be sterile and our imaginations would stifle. Hiking creates a sense of value within a person that rewards simple pleasures.
Breathing clean air away from the seething mass of humanity can release dopamine into the brain in a way that little else can. Being in a green space can put the brain into a state of meditation. From an evolutionary perspective we ought to be outside and take long walks in the forest.
Anxiety and fear are most commonplace while engaging in activities that are focused around urban areas. Studies show that living in cities can increase the likelihood of depression so fighting depression is one of the many benefits of hiking! If we succumb to the ease of life and forego the wild lands, we are doomed to live lives that are not fulfilling. Filling your life with many small adventures eventually makes for one grand adventure.
8. Hiking is fun
Not many activities can match the thrill and enjoyment of hiking. Leaving societal expectations at home and embracing the freedom of the outdoors is fun. For example, catching insects, going fishing, getting your hands dirty is fun. To feel the change in temperature over the course of an entire day make us all feel alive. Think of how many days where we spend less than even 1 hour outside. It separates us from the natural world and that is not fun.
The Responsibility of Liberty
Taking on the responsibility of being outdoors is part of the enjoyment of the outdoors. If you live in a city, many of the more “traditional” responsibilities are unnecessary. If you’re cold, you can turn the heat up and if you need more heat, you can go to work and make more money.
While hiking, “traditional” responsibilities like staying warm become imperative to survival. Hikers are not afraid of the cold, instead, most embrace the challenge and become invigorated because of it. Relying on yourself and being responsible for your own happiness is true liberty. Hiking teaches us to rely on ourselves and to embrace our ability to enjoy freedom. Hopefully this little list of some of the benefits of hiking gave you even more reasons to get out and find a trail! I
In case you need some info on how to get started with hiking, read my Beginner’s Guide to Hiking!