Hiking Benefits for Mental Health
Tone your body while calming your mind.
As John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Getting out in nature satisfies something deep in our souls, and the mental benefits of hiking run deep, too. According to one study, being surrounded by nature is a proven stress reducer and it provides a much-needed respite from urban life. Especially in the past year, when many gyms and studios were closed, hiking became the exercise of choice for those looking to get out in nature.
“While equipment is a great supplement when real-world terrain isn't accessible, there's nothing like actually managing technical terrain on foot,” says Taylor Thomas, Founder and Head Coach at TEC. “Everything from the ankle strength needed to walk confidently on trails to maintaining proper posture adds up to help build a stronger and more resilient athlete.”
Even better? Hiking is mostly free, accessible to any fitness level and requires no equipment besides a good pair of shoes. What is often overlooked about hiking, however, is the many benefits to one’s mental health. Below, we catch up with some of our favorite hiking experts to learn more.
Short-Term and Long-Term Benefits
Another study suggests that some of the immediate benefits of hiking include lowered blood pressure and stress levels, improved immune system function and increased focus. Additionally, an American Hiking Society (AHS) health report found that hiking and outdoor exercise in nature provide great mental health benefits including improved memory, reduced anxiety and depression, and alleviated symptoms of attention deficit disorder.
“Some studies have shown it doesn't take a lot of time outside or require ‘deep nature’ to gain the mental health benefits of hiking,” says AHS Communications and Creative Director Wesley Trimble. “Short walks multiple times a week in a local park are likely more beneficial for mental health than irregular or inconsistent strenuous treks in wilderness areas.”
You may have also read about forest bathing, which can provide similar mental benefits to hiking. “When we are hiking outside, we can take in the natural beauty of the trees, hear birds singing and just enjoy connecting with nature away from the typical stimulation and stress of urban and suburban areas,” says Functional Nutrition Coach and Personal Trainer Jeannie Oliver. “Benefits include improved immune function, reduced blood pressure and alleviated depression.”
Are All Hikes Created Equal?
When it comes to the mental benefits of hiking, it seems that how long or how far you hike doesn’t really make a difference. “It's important to understand that while elevating your heart rate is important, every hike doesn't have to be strenuous,” says Thomas. “Taking a gentle walk in the woods with the express intention of mental health and self-care is just as valuable as a more strenuous activity.”
As for hiking solo versus grabbing a friend for a hike, it’s a matter of preference. “Hiking solo may provide a break from emotional output and can help you recharge, especially if you’re an introvert,” says Oliver. “But if you don’t mind some company, hiking with a friend or a group adds an element of safety, especially on more remote trails. Just feeling safer during your hike can make the experience more relaxing. I always feel a little more at ease if I’m hiking with someone else.”
Oliver points out that hiking with friends or family can be a great way to reconnect, and it’s certainly healthier than downing a few drinks at a bar. Spending time with friends in the absence of distractions like screens can make for deeper connections.
One way to increase the mental benefits of hiking is to focus on one’s breath. “Breathing is the primary source of energy and strength while hiking,” says Trimble. “All those moving muscles need a constant flow of oxygen. Whether I'm on a mindfulness hike to destress or trying to perform at the peak of my ability, I often focus my attention on taking deep, steady breaths and getting a full expansion in my chest.”
Before and After Hiking
There are a few things you can do before you lace up and after you get home that will help maintain the mental health benefits of hiking that you just racked up. First of all, it can be helpful to think of hiking as an enjoyable activity rather than a workout. “If your goal is to improve mental health and relax, I suggest hiking purely for the enjoyment of it,” says Oliver. “Before your hike, shift your mindset into one of connecting with nature and resetting versus using it as an outdoor gym. Getting outdoor workouts is wonderful too, but if you need to chill or unwind, you may benefit more from a leisurely pace when you’re focused on appreciating your surroundings.”
Post-hike, Oliver recommends refueling with nutrient-dense, whole foods like organic veggies, quality protein and healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds. “Add in some fruit for dessert to reduce inflammation and give your body the nutrients it needs for muscle repair and recovery,” she says. “These foods are also what you need to support your nervous system and gut, which play key roles in mental health.”
If you have a creative project to work on, doing so post-hike is a great idea. “We typically interact with artificial and engineered spaces made from most of the same kinds of materials in the built environment,” says Trimble. “In nature, we are stimulated with all our senses by ever-changing, interconnected ecosystems. When we are connected to these places, our minds can make new connections, too. No wonder so many great thinkers, artists, scientists, and leaders throughout history intentionally took time out of their days to go for walks and hikes.”