Hiking and Walking: Better Sleep, Better Health

Hiking and Walking: Better Sleep, Better Health

Walking is the most underrated form of exercise. This makes a bit of sense, since walking is just what we, as humans, do. But intentional walking—walking for our mental and physical health—has better effects on our mind and body than any other form of exercise.

Hiking, which implies that you’re either moving on rough terrain or going from a lower to a higher elevation (often both!), kicks the benefits of a walk up a notch (or five).

Less stress and anxiety, better mood

Endorphins, endorphins, endorphins! All cardiovascular exercise produces endorphins in the brain, improving our mood and helping us relax.

It’s not all about endorphins, though. Simply being in nature for as little as 20 minutes significantly reduces our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of a research study on urban nature experiences and stress reduction. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

There’s also evidence our brain releases something called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) when we exercise. “BDNF is a trophic factor that’s associated with the alleviation of depression and anxiety,” writes Sama F Sleiman, lead author of a research article about exercise and BDNF. Although it’s unclear exactly how exercise produces this protein, the fact that it does is unquestionable.

Stronger muscles and reduced joint pain

Stronger muscles = less stress on your joints = less pain. Hiking builds strength in the calves, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and hips. If you’re mindful of your posture, you’ll also notice increased core strength. And since walking and hiking are both weight-bearing exercises, you’ll get the added benefit of boosting your bone density.

Additionally, hiking is great because it’s a low-impact exercise that keeps your joints mobile without putting stress or strain onto your body. This makes hiking and walking an incredibly valuable exercise for those who suffer from arthritis, people who are overweight, and anyone who has been living a sedentary lifestyle.

The single aspect of hiking that isn’t so great on your bod? Hiking downhill—it’s not so nice on your knees. Maintaining posture while hiking downhill will help protect your knees. Bending your knees slightly and making sure your head, chest, and pelvis are all in line will help disperse the weight. We also always recommend the use of trekking poles to anyone with knee or hip concerns, as they’ll help distribute your weight.

All the right numbers

Hiking and walking lead to a myriad of health improvements. From your waistline to your cholesterol level, getting outside and moving your body in an intentional way will absolutely positively affect your health. Hiking and walking are both associated with:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced cholesterol levels
  • Reduced body fat
  • Improved circulation
  • Improved balance and flexibility
  • Lower risks of cancer, heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Healthy weight
  • Higher immune function

You name it, hiking and walking are probably good for it!

Sleep like a baby

A recent study published by Sleep Health found that the more steps we take each day, on average, the better quality sleep we get. It’s pretty widely understood that exercise is associated with stress reduction and physical health, both of which play a major role in how well a person sleeps.

Some studies suggest that hiking can act as even more of a sleep booster. In a 2013 study, researcher Kenneth Wright found that peoples’ internal clocks are about two hours hours delayed thanks to electric lighting (which, let’s be honest, is what we’re surrounded by and look at all day and night). A bit scary, but the study found that after just one week spent in nature, the same peoples’ internal clock recalibrated to the standard biological clock.

The study also found that levels of melatonin were significantly higher in people who had spent the week outside. Don’t have a week to camp and hike? The study found that even just a weekend exposure can help your mind and body get back on track.

Get started

Getting started with hiking and walking is easy as can be! The first step is to get great, supportive shoes. We recommend a low top hiker, because they’re great for trails and city sidewalks. Start slow, walking around your neighborhood. Build up to longer, more meandering walks. Drive to parts of your city or town you don’t know well but have always wanted to explore, and walk there! Apps like Map My Walk will help you keep track of your pace and routes, as well as help you find routes mapped by other walkers in your town!

You’ll also want to do exercises to strengthen your ankles! Try lying down, putting one foot up in front of you, and drawing out every letter of the alphabet with your big toe. Do it with both feet at least four times a week for the first few months, then reduce to once or twice a week as your ankles get stronger.

If you’re interested in starting hiking, alltrails.com is a great website. With hiking, it’s always best to start slow. Don’t try to conquer ten miles as a beginner, and don’t assume that just because a hike is two miles that it’s easy. Take everything into account, from distance, to elevation gain, to terrain. Checking your area’s most popular trails will help you get a sense of what’s most doable for a beginner!

Also note, bringing plenty of water and a first aid kit is of the utmost importance while hiking, especially if you’re going to a remote area. Be sure to tell a loved one exactly where you’re going, when to expect you home, the map you’re using, and the correct police dispatch to call if you’re not back in time. Telling someone where you’ll be is so important when you’re going into the wilderness.

The most important thing in terms of hiking and walking is consistency. You’ll be amazed at how much stronger you’ll get and how much more endurance you’ll gain in a short period of time. The second most important thing about walking and hiking? Enjoying yourself. This is a time to be with yourself, commune with nature, clear your mind, and get exercise. Put aside the day’s problems, and focus on the world around you, wherever your walk or hike takes you.

Are you a hiker? Drop your tips down below!