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Health Benefits of Hiking in the Outdoors

The health benefits of hiking carry much more weight than you might think. Yes, walking burns calories and nature is beautiful, but it's more than that. Hiking outside offers scientifically proven health benefits you can't get from spending time in a gym.

It doesn't matter whether you take a walk in the park or lace up your hiking boots for a backpacking expedition up a mountain. Hiking on the trail - immersed in nature - offers understated health benefits for adults and children alike. Health benefits of hiking include improving your physical, mental, and for some - even spiritual - wellbeing.

No room in your schedule? Even if you can't hit the trail as often as you'd like, make it a point to spend just 10-15 minutes a day outdoors. Most people start to notice a positive shift in their life after committing to some outside time every day.

How the Sun Affects Us

smiling in the sun

Simply put, life would not exist without the sun. Not only does the sun give you that beautiful, radiant tan from one summer to the next, but it also provides all life on earth with energy. Plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, allowing plants to flourish and pass energy to the next level of the food chain.

If life needs sunshine to flourish, it's only natural that people would receive health benefits when hiking outside. After all, you can't get much sunshine from behind a desk!

The Sunshine Vitamin

sunshine and vitamin D

Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is naturally produced in your skin when exposed to sunlight. That’s right, just being outside—no workout required—will increase your vitamin D levels. Think about that before you choose between going to the park and the movies!

Scientists are not completely sure of the range of positive effects vitamin D has on the body, but studies suggest the vitamin wards against conditions like osteoporosis, cancer, depression, and heart attacks. What we do know for sure is that vitamin D aids the body’s absorption of calcium and boosts the immune system.

The vitamin is especially important for the growth and development of children’s bones and teeth. Want your children’s bones to grow big and strong? Take them out in the sun for a healthy dose of vitamin D!

So hiking outside will naturally increase your vitamin D levels, helping to prevent a range of diseases while also keeping you physically fit.

Light Up Your Life

In certain regions—especially those furthest from the equator—many people are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This condition is characterized by seasonal depression, typically around the winter months when the daylight hours are shortest. People who have been diagnosed with SAD feel depressed during the winter, but are completely fine during the spring and summer months.

What causes this phenomenon?

Although experts are not entirely certain what causes SAD, scientists speculate a lack of sunshine is the culprit. In fact, doctors commonly treat people diagnosed with SAD with something called “light therapy.” Light therapy primarily involves sitting or working near a device that mimics natural outdoor light—do you see how important sunlight is for the mind and body?

It may be impossible to get enough natural sunlight during the winter if you live in a place like Iceland or Northern Canada, but if you live in a place where you do get natural sunlight year round, consider yourself lucky. Spend some quality time under the sun’s bright rays every day you can—it’s just what the doctor ordered!

Natural Light, Better Sleep

You probably wouldn’t think it, but sunlight may actually be linked to a better night’s sleep. Americans are becoming more and more sleep-deprived, and it seems like spending more time in the sun could be a viable solution. We live in an indoor society, where most people spend the bulk of their day behind a desk at school or work. We could all probably use some more sunshine in our lives.

Why would light actually help you sleep? It’s all about melatonin. You may have seen melatonin—a naturally produced human hormone—in the “natural” section in your neighborhood pharmacy as a sleep remedy. Melatonin is created by a part of the brain called the pineal gland, and the hormone is responsible for that drowsy feeling you experience in the evening as you’re winding down for bed.

Exposing yourself to sunlight early in the morning tells your body when to start producing melatonin. That way, when nighttime rolls around, your body will know when it’s time to hit the hay. Even if you work in a windowless environment for 8 hours a day, getting outside into the daylight for just 10-15 minutes could help you fall asleep easier at night.

Playtime in the Sun

playing in the sun

It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when the lives of Americans were not dominated by screen time. Nowadays, there’s unlimited information and entertainment possibilities that can be experienced on devices as small as your hand. And for some, it makes outdoor activities like hiking less appealing.

Breakthroughs in technology have enhanced our lives, but with them come serious ramifications. In past generations, playing outside was one of the only forms of entertainment for children.

Presently, the average American child spends less than 30 minutes playing outdoors a day, and approximately 7 or more hours in front of computer monitors, television screens, and smartphones. With so many hours spent motionless in front of screens, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity in the United States has more than doubled in the past 20 years alone.

How can we help ensure the health and well being of our children? Get them outside! Try these 5 tips for hiking with kids to keep them engaged on the trail. Exposure to the outdoors aids child development in a multitude of ways:

Outdoors and Physical Well-Being

Any type of physical play is great for child development, but being surrounded by four walls can restrict children from getting the most out of their playtime. Outside, kids can run, jump, and play to their hearts’ content. Whether you take your child to the park for batting practice, the slopes to ski the bunny hill, or even the front yard just to romp around after school, outdoor activities like hiking facilitate healthy play.

As mentioned earlier, vitamin D is an integral part to your child’s growth and development. Time spent outside in the sun will help increase your child’s fitness levels while decreasing the chance of health related issues later in life.

Hiking and Mental Health

Spending time outdoors is also very important for the cognitive health of both children and adults. Although certain indoor activities can stimulate learning and positive growth, children learn about risk-taking by spending time outdoors. The risk factor when spending time in front of a screen is non-existent, but being outside can help children learn about the decision-making skills that are so crucial later in life.

Taking your kid on hiking and camping trips also helps their leadership skills. There are so many outdoor leadership programs like NOLS, Wilderness Ventures, and Outward Bound because of the positive effect it has on kids and teens. The mental health benefits from hiking in a group can change a young person's life.

children flying a kite

Experience builds character and facilitates growth. As Paulo Coelho said, “Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” Immersing oneself in nature leads to experiences unmatched by anything else—there’s a certain element of unpredictability that can never be experienced in a controlled, indoor environment. Climbing rocks, crossing streams, and running in fields teaches children about risk versus reward, boosting self-esteem and bolstering confidence.

Did you know that more children are being diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) now more than ever before? Researchers have found that lacking exposure to natural settings could be a major cause of the surge in ADHD diagnoses. According to a study by Environment & Behavior, children regularly exposed to the outdoors are thought to experience a reduction of ADHD symptoms.

In both children and adults, stress levels reportedly fall with exposure to natural elements. Although meandering through the woods will not make your job or mother-in-law any less stressful, spending just 10-15 minutes a day outside can positively affect your mental health. Check out this guide on how to choose light hiking boots to gear up for short, weekend hikes.

Social Wellness

Nature brings people together. Just think about it: how much time do people spend lost in their text messages and emails, even when the people they love are an arm’s length away? The answer is way too much time!

When children spend time in nature with family and/or friends instead of sitting idly in front of a screen, the way they interact with people changes for the best. Outdoor activities are thought to make children (and adults) act nicer and even create more meaningful social interactions.

Not only do children connect with the environment, they better connect with one another when they are distraction-free. Sometimes it’s best to unplug, leave the smartphones and gadgets at home, and truly experience what lies beyond your front door.

Hiking Outdoors vs Exercising at the Gym

outdoor fitness

Most people exercise indoors because it’s much easier to maintain a routine in a controlled environment. Torrential downpour, blistering heat, and frostbitten winds are never an issue when hitting the gym. Also, indoor fitness facilities have weights and loads of equipment for getting in shape.

However, exercising outside with a routine like walking around the block or hiking a trail has its perks, even if unpredictable weather gets in the way from time to time. And remember, you don’t have to limit your exercise routine to one or the other—try getting outside to mix it up and get the best of both worlds!

A 2008 study by the Scottish Health Study concluded that outdoor physical activity has a significantly greater positive effect on mental health than exercising in a gym. In addition, running outdoors reportedly has a better effect on the body than running on a treadmill or stationary bicycle.

Your form actually changes when running outdoors. When running on natural terrain, the ankle naturally flexes more than when running on artificial terrain. Although many cardio machines do have uphill and downhill features, it just doesn’t compare to actually running uphill and downhill.

Studies have found that runners tend to expend more energy when running outdoors compared to indoors, and this may be due to differences like wind resistance and terrain.

Remember to Stay Safe!

Spending time outside is great for your physical and mental health, but do remember: you can never account for everything that may happen outside. Whether running in an urban park or climbing a rock face, exposure to the great outdoors comes with risks.

Expect the unexpected when outside—you never know what’s going to happen, but that’s part of the fun! When spending time outdoors, always use your best judgment, have fun, and be mindful. Stay safe with these tips:

  • Always stay hydrated when engaging in physical activity
  • Dress appropriately for the weather to maintain a healthy internal temperature
  • Wear proper footwear to protect your feet from harsh terrains
  • Sunshine is great, but too much sun can lead to painful sunburns, increasing the risk of developing skin cancer. Know your skin and come prepared with sunscreen, if necessary
  • Hiking in the woods or walking in an open field? Wear insect repellant to minimize the chance of nasty bites and insect borne diseases
  • If getting outdoors means walking on urban streets or parks, use your best judgment to determine which areas are safe and what time of day those areas are safe
Hi-Tec USA