Menus Subscribe Search

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.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

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.

More From John McKinney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.