Want to make your workouts — and quite possibly your whole world — better? Go for a hike. It’s not only an easy way to rev your heart rate while being friendly to your joints (Read: low impact), but research shows it can strengthen your spirit as much as your muscles. Here’s what happens when you head for the hills:
1. YOU’LL BURN MORE CALORIES
It might seem like a no-brainer, because adding an incline boosts nearly any fitness challenge (hello gravity!), but even strolling along moderate natural terrain can boost calorie burn. According to the Harvard University calorie-burning guide, the average 155-pound person would burn 149 calories walking a 17-minute mile for 30 minutes along flat terrain, and 223 calories over cross-country terrain. That’s 50% more calories torched! Move faster or climb a steeper hill and that number only increases.
2. YOU’LL TONE YOUR LEGS, GLUTES AND CORE
Back to the incline effect: When you walk uphill, you’re pulling and pushing your body weight even more than you would on flat surfaces — and you especially engage your glutes and hamstrings. When you head downhill, your quads jump into action to help stabilize your body, including your knees. Finally, your core works throughout your movements, to stabilize your entire body, especially over uneven terrain.
3. YOU’LL FOCUS BETTER
A study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that when people walked in nature, they experienced improved focus. Study participants were asked to stroll through a leafy arboretum during a Michigan winter. They fared better on cognitive function tests than they had before the nature walk and better than those who walked in a more urban setting. (According to the researchers, urban environments require too much active attention, which detracts from the typically restorative effects of a walk.)
What does this mean for you? You can get physiological benefits when ramping up the incline on your treadmill, but if you take your hike outside, you’ll boost your body and mind.
4. YOU’LL BE HAPPIER
This might be the best benefit of all: As if brain and body power weren’t enough, research has shown that hiking can reduce and even help stave off depression. Stanford University scientists found that walking in nature for 90 minutes versus walking for the same amount of time in an urban setting reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for depression. More specifically, the researchers found hiking can reduce rumination, or rather, repetitive, negative thoughts. A dose of sunshine anyone?