Uphill or down: The health benefits of hiking depend on where you're headed

Uphill or down: The health benefits of hiking depend on where you're headed

Don't ignore the descent — or the stairs down — as an exercise strategy.

Hiking is a popular way of being active outdoors, especially during summer. Although everyone knows that climbing up a hill or mountain is a great workout, we tend to see reaching the top as the end of the "real" exercise and the descent as easy street. But research from the Vorarlberg Institute in Feldkirch, Austria, suggests that heading downhill is a form of exercise with unique health benefits.

The hike up largely involves concentric (muscle-shortening) exercise — the kind that occurs when you bend your arm to "make a muscle." Hiking downhill is eccentric (muscle-lengthening) exercise, the result of the muscles' braking action as they resist the pull of gravity on your body. (More generally, eccentric exercise occurs whenever you lower a weight against resistance.) The study, presented in November 2004 at an American Heart Association meeting in New Orleans, concluded that each of these exercise modes has distinct effects on blood sugar and blood fats.

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