Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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