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Take a Hike: How Hiking Can Boost Your Physique, Mood, and Spirit

By Leah Ginn

While on a strenuous hike in southern Kentucky near Cumberland Falls, one of my closest friends once said to me, “I think I believe why nature is so sacred; it is the only part of life that exists just as God intends for it to. It does exactly what it is supposed to do.” I pondered this statement as I continued walking down the forested path, and decided that this was true. I often wondered what drew me to the sport of hiking. I’ve never been the most athletic; exercising was at the bottom of my totem pole of priorities, and I was never the star player on any sports team. I knew that I didn’t enjoy hiking for the exercise it provided or for its athletic factor; however, the high that I felt after completing a tough hike made the difficult climb worth it. The first time I was invited to go hiking, I was highly skeptical of what would happen when my clumsiness met the obstacles in the woods. But after some convincing, I packed a water bottle and some snacks and headed for the mountains of northeast Georgia for a well-over 5 mile day hike. Though the steep terrain and precipitous cliffs were almost enough to deter me from this new activity, the view at the peak made me realize instantly how much every step and stumble was worth. That first hike was one of hundreds I would eventually go on, and through each of those hikes, I fell in love with nature, gained a new respect for the outdoors and found a new appreciation for the earth like I’d never known before. This passion is only invigorated with each new location I visit and each new peak I reach, and, through many miles of endurance, atop many mountains and under numerous waterfalls, has taught me some valuable lessons about the benefits of hiking for my mental and physical health and for my soul.

Though I may not have fully appreciated the physical aspect of hiking originally, I cannot deny that my body is all the better for it.

There comes a point in nearly every hike when I stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this today?” Though some trails are shorter and less strenuous than others, there are many that demand a great amount of strength and perseverance from your body. For example, a trail winding over a mountain will require a more intense uphill battle than a hike to a waterfall deep in the woods. Though I wasn’t necessarily out of shape when I began hiking, I was never a frequent member of the gym. The physical activity of (seemingly) simply walking up and down many hills over many miles created soreness in parts of my body that I didn’t know could be sore. I had to take breaks often to catch my breath, even when it did not seem like I was traveling too fast. Over weeks and months, however, I noticed something astonishing. My cardiac rhythm would remain more evenly paced through the most vigorous hikes, my calves and thighs would ache less at the end of the day and I could handle going further than I would’ve thought possible at the beginning of my hiking escapades — I was getting stronger. Though I may not have fully appreciated the physical aspect of hiking originally, I cannot deny that my body is all the better for it. In fact, the American Hiking Society states that hiking, even at a slow pace, can burn at least 100 calories per mile (Jones, 2010.) Based on this statement, it can be concluded that at an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour, even a novice hiker will burn around 250 calories per hour by simply walking down a trail. This form of exercise is one that doesn’t require a stuffy and crowded gym and instead provides some of Earth’s most amazing visual wonders, such as high waterfalls, densely green woods and 360 degree views of mountain peaks filling up the horizon. Aside from the physical benefits that hiking inevitably offers, the American Hiking Society proves that the sport supports health in multiple other ways, such as decreasing hypertension (by strengthening cardiac muscles), lowering the risk of heart disease and lessening anxiety. The pros of hiking outweigh its cons by far.

My cardiac rhythm would remain more evenly paced through the most vigorous hikes, my calves and thighs would ache less at the end of the day and I could handle going further than I would’ve thought possible at the beginning of my hiking escapades — I was getting stronger.

Some take to yoga while others take to boxing to relieve the burden of stress. Hiking, however, is a tried and true method of stress relief. When adrenaline accumulates in the body, muscular tension builds up, which causes anxiety and apprehension. Studies done by Harvard Medical School have shown that 30 minutes of physical activity per day alone greatly reduces these feelings of stress (Harvard, 2011.) During exercise, the bloodstream is flooded with natural mood-boosters, such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. There are many other examples of the mental benefits of hiking as well. While hikers may choose to deal with thoughts about their lives while trekking across hushed paths, they may also silence their minds so that they may savor the beauty around them. This time may serve as a sort of therapy that can greatly boost one’s mood. Alone time in nature can also lead to the realization how miniscule personal problems are when isolated from the busy and cacophonous world of daily life. The change in scenery of new trails and different habitats will serve as a distraction from the monotony of the normal routine. Regardless of the stress I may be facing, hiking is a foolproof way to engage in the “me-time” that is necessary for a happy life.

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During exercise, the bloodstream is flooded with natural mood-boosters, such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

Some of my greatest revelations and deepest conversations have originated on trails of all lengths and locations. I have learned that hiking benefits not only my body and mind, but also affects me on a deeper level. Whether I am hiking alone or with friends, I always feel allied with nature and the world around me as I travel down trails. John Muir, an environmental philosopher, once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”  I have found this to be an accurate statement, as I have taken many lessons from the trails I have encountered, and have heard many tales of hikers being strengthened by nature’s lasting impression. Before I began hiking, I never would have pictured myself as one who wandered through the woods for fun, but opening my eyes to the hobby showed me not only that I had been missing out on a fun activity, but also introduced me to one of my greatest passions. Hiking throughout the wilderness, one of Earth’s purest assets, seems to provide trekkers with the feeling of a deeper connection with their spirits. It also encourages the practice of mindful meditation, which requires becoming intimate with the present moment rather than isolating yourself in your own thoughts. A prestigious study, Perspectives on Psychological Science, defined mindful meditation as “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” (Chan, 2013.) Having this kind of control over your thoughts can be surprisingly beneficial for your attitude. It seems as though hiking strengthens the soul, as well as the mind and body, and I can personally testify to that.

Hiking throughout the wilderness, one of Earth’s purest assets, seems to provide trekkers with the feeling of a deeper connection with their spirits.

At the end of a long hike, the most rewarding feeling is one of having conquered a mountain. You can feel how every muscle and every bone in your body, maybe reluctantly, has appreciated the work out. You will feel refreshed at the lightness of your mentality after your stresses have faded away with each step. You will also likely feel connected with your environment and feel a deeper link to our primal abode. My hiking days are far from over, and I look forward to discovering new landscapes and paths in the future. John Muir has more sage advice to offer with this final encouragement: “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

References
Jones, D. (2010). Health Benefits of Hiking. Retrieved July 6, 2015. http://www.americanhiking.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Heath-Benefits-of-Hiking-fact-sheet.pdf
Chan, Amanda. (2013). Mindfulness Meditation Benefits: 20 Reasons Why It’s Good for
Your Mental and Physical Health. The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 6, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html
Harvard Health Publications. (2011). Exercising to Relax. Retrieved July 6, 2015. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax