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For Good Health: Take a Hike!

• March 22, 2009 • 11:12 PM

Although it’s no surprise that any activity is better than none, hiking has specific medicinal benefits.

From William Wordsworth’s poetry to the Boy Scout hiking merit badge pamphlet, tramping through the countryside has long been considered a tonic for good health.

“Walk out the door and find good health. There is no fever that a 10-mile hike can’t cure,” suggests Garrison Keillor, the wry host of National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion.

Millions of Americans who like to hike believe that hiking contributes to good physical and mental health. And yet, until recently, nearly all evidence offered for the benefits of taking a hike was anecdotal, and very little hiking-specific scientific research supported that belief.

In 2004, Austrian researchers announced the results of an intriguing study demonstrating that different types of hiking have different influences on the fats and sugars in the blood. For the study, one group hiked up a ski resort mountain in the Alps and descended by cable car, while the other group rode the cable car up and hiked down. After two months of hiking, the groups switched hiking programs and repeated the experiment.

As expected, hiking uphill proved to be a great workout and provided measurable health benefits. Unexpectedly, researchers from the Vorarlberg Institute for Vascular Investigation and Treatment discovered that hiking downhill also has unique benefits.

Both uphill and downhill hiking reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Only hiking uphill reduced triglyceride levels. The study’s surprise finding was that hiking downhill was nearly twice as effective as uphill hiking at removing blood sugars and improving glucose tolerance. A second study of uphill/downhill hiking was conducted this summer, but results have yet to be announced.

A study commissioned by Mind, a leading British mental health charity, suggests hiking contributes to improved mental and emotional health. Focusing on people affected by depression, researchers from the University of Essex compared the benefits of hiking a trail through the woods and around a lake in a nature park to walking in an indoor shopping center. The researchers found that the hikers realized far greater benefits than the mall walkers.

In fact, they found that taking a hike in the countryside reduces depression, whereas walking in a shopping center increases depression. Results from the 2007 study showed that 71 percent reported decreased levels of depression after hiking, while 22 percent of the participants felt their depression increased after walking through an indoor shopping center. Ninety percent reported their self-esteem increased after the nature hike, while 44 percent reported decreased self-esteem after walking around the shopping center. Eighty-eight percent of people reported improved mood after hiking, while 44.5 percent reported feeling in a worse mood after the shopping-center walk.

The American Hiking Society, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes hiking, produces a widely circulated fact sheet, “Health Benefits of Hiking,” that relies on studies, mostly of walking, made by the American Diabetes, American Heart and American Lung associations to make the case. Hiking-specific research is likely to be of more value in linking hiking and good health than the general “Exercise is Good for You” studies long used by AHS and other advocacy groups.

“Hiking for health is what we’re all about, so we’re glad the benefits are getting quantified,” declared Tracy Roseboom, senior national campaign manager for Hike For Discovery, a program of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that offers its supporters in chapters nationwide an opportunity to take a hike while raising money for cancer research.

Participants train and take practice hikes in their home locales for 14 to 16 weeks before embarking on a marquee hike in a natural wonderland, such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Maui. Most hikers look at the training as a way to get fit for the once-in-a-lifetime hike, as well as for better overall health and fitness. Roseboom said the health benefits of hiking have been a key selling point for the program since it began in 2006.

Whether or not the latest research is influencing public opinion, hiking for health appears to be an idea whose time has come. The message is on cereal boxes and granola bar wrappers and a popular subject in Prevention, as well as women’s and health magazines. Glamour.com and Self.com even feature a hiking-activities calculator. Enter your weight, duration of your hike, the kind of hiking you’re doing (backpacking, climbing hills, etc.) and learn how many calories you blast on the trail. (There’s also a good calculator here that also factors in weight, distance and elevation change for a better picture of the burn.)

And from the Devon Hiking Spa in Tucson, Ariz., to the New Life Hiking Spa in Killington, Vt., hiking spas are very popular these days with those who find combining hiking with all the usual health-resort activities makes for a stress-reducing, fitness-building holiday.

Roseboom said she’s pleased by the new data that suggests hiking has health benefits beyond those of walking around the neighborhood, but the research doesn’t surprise her. “I see hikers routinely make the connections between nature, themselves and good health,” she said. “I’m glad the researchers are making the same connections.”

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John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

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