In 2020, when everyone was stuck in COVID lockdown, hiking enjoyed a popularity boom. A report found that the number of hikes logged in 2020 was up 171% compared with 2019. The number of individual hikers rose 135%.
"This makes sense, since hiking continues to be one of the safest activities during COVID, because it is done outside and away from confined group settings," says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "Plus, what's a better antidote for being cooped up than getting outside for some therapeutic time with nature?"
More than a walk
Hiking is one of the best ways to boost body and soul. For starters, it's great for building muscles in the lower body. Hiking uphill works the muscles in your hips and buttocks, while going downhill works the quads (the muscles in the fronts of your thighs).
While walking is an easy way for people to exercise, it's not always the best for maintaining aerobic intensity. "People often walk at a leisurely pace with many starts and stops, which keep them from raising their heart rate," says Dr. Phillips.
However, hiking up and down uneven terrain requires more energy than walking on a level surface. Your body has to work harder, thereby increasing your heart rate, burning more calories, and improving cardiovascular fitness.
Finding your footing on a trail also gives you practice at staying steady on your feet. This improves balance, a skill that protects against potentially life-threatening falls. "When you challenge your body, it will adapt," says Dr. Phillips. "So, if the hiking terrain puts your balance to the test, it will push your internal balance system to improve."
Hiking can improve your emotional health as well. Numerous studies have found that older adults who regularly interact with nature have better sleep, less stress, lower anxiety levels, and fewer bouts of depression. It doesn't matter if you hike alone or with others. Research has found that group nature walks are just as effective as solo treks for improving mental outlook.
Hit the trail
With hiking, it's best to begin small and build up. "Begin with easy, flat trails over a short distance like a mile, and see how you do," says Dr. Phillips. "You can gradually progress to more challenging trails with greater elevations and longer distances as your fitness and hiking skills improve." When you are ready to take a hike, make sure you are well prepared. Here are some tips.
Improve your walking. If your endurance needs some work, begin a walking program. For instance, walk daily for 10 to 20 minutes and build from there. "Another way to improve hiking endurance is walking on a treadmill at an incline to simulate hiking uphill," says Dr. Phillips.
Safety first. If you can't hike with someone, let a friend or family member know where you plan to hike and for how long. Bring your cellphone and a local map, or use a hiking or GPS app (see "Trail markers").
Grab some poles. Using walking poles helps you navigate tricky terrain and support your knees by propelling your body forward as you stride. Poles also give you an added level of security against falling on uneven terrain.
Walking poles have metal tips (for use on trails) and attachable rubber tips for asphalt or concrete surfaces. Most are adjustable and can collapse for easy storage in a backpack. Purchase them at a sporting goods or camping store where staff can offer product advice, help you adjust the height, and give you a quick lesson on their use.
Stay hydrated. Drink water before, during, and after your hike. Set a timer on your phone or sports watch to remind you to drink regularly.
Watch the weather. If you're not sure about the forecast, wear layers that you can easily remove and wrap around your waist. Carry a rolled-up windbreaker, rain jacket, or poncho in a backpack.
Support yourself. Invest in specially designed hiking or trail shoes with good ankle support. Wear calf-length socks to protect your legs from bites, scrapes, and scratches.
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