When I moved to Denver in July, I was so eager to hit the trails that I couldn’t wait for the weekends. As soon as the clock struck 5 p.m. on a workday, I’d slam my laptop shut, throw on my backpack, and head for the hills—literally.
Back when I lived in Florida, I was content to spend my evenings wandering the nearby shopping center with my dog to unwind. No more. Now that I know the bliss of a post-work hike in the Flatirons, my simple strolls around the neighborhood feel a little stale. And I’m not the only one trading in my treadmill struts for switchbacks. Katie Gassman has more than 32,000 followers on her @hotgirlhikes TikTok account devoted to touting the good news about getting outdoors; she also organizes group hot girl hikes for those in search of gal pals to adventure alongside.
Experts In This Article
- Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, CSAT-S, licensed clinical psychologist and author of No Perfect Love
- Edward Phillips, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast
- Mike Dow, PsyD, psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author of The Brain Fog Fix, Healing the Broken Brain, and Diet Rehab
And it turns out, there’s a whole lot of science behind why we crave time on the trails. Edward Phillips, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and co-host of the Food, We Need to Talk podcast, says that hiking gives you all the physical and mental benefits of walking—plus some.
“There are wonderful benefits to your mind to forestall depression, anxiety—all of those things just from going on a short walk,” Phillips says. “So you get all of those benefits and then, as the old commercials used to say: Wait, there’s more.”
What’s the difference between walking and hiking?
Admittedly, the line is blurry. For Phillips, the distinction often comes in the intention and preparation. If you don’t think twice about what shoes to wear, what your route will be, if the weather might change, or if you need to pack food and water, you’re probably going for a walk.
On the other hand, if you put on sturdier trail-ready shoes, pack extra layers, plan to walk on uneven terrain, and examine your route ahead of time, it’s likely a hike.
Hikes don’t have to be a certain mileage or altitude, Phillips says. But they do often involve exploring new places and being in nature. The great thing about hiking? It can be as mild or as wild as you want—either way, you’ll reap the benefits.
What are the benefits of hiking versus walking?
Walking is the most popular form of exercise in the world, and for good reason. There’s the longevity, bone strength, cardiovascular, and brain health benefits. Walking can boost your immune system, soothe joint pain, reduce the risk of breast cancer, and even quell your cravings for sweets, according to Harvard Medical School. But you get all those perks and more when you transform that walk into a hike.
1. Hiking challenges your heart and leg muscles
Trekking across a rolling trail is nature’s own interval training, Phillips says. Hikes often include various uphill and downhill sections, which leads to a natural undulation in effort. “You’re going to work harder going up. Your heart rate is going to come up. Your breathing is going to increase, and then when you’re coming down, you have a chance to relax a little bit,” he says.
This variation in incline demands more from your muscles than a typical stroll around the community’s retention pond. Your glutes fire up to help you conquer the uphill portions, and then your quads engage on the descent, acting as your body’s natural brakes, Phillips says. And these changes in incline don’t have to be dramatic: Even gentle hills can work muscles we don’t activate on a flat walk.
2. Hiking can improve your balance
Since hiking often takes place on terrain that’s a little rougher than your residential sidewalk, it’s an excellent way to challenge your balance. All of the movements you make throughout a hike, from stepping over a big rock to walking across a log, train your body to maintain its equilibrium under a slew of different circumstances. “And the more you challenge any system in your body, the more your body is going to adapt and get better at it,” says Phillips So if you find yourself stumbling down a trail littered with loose stones or take an unintentional dip in a babbling brook, don’t fret. Your next foray into the forest will likely be a little smoother.
3. Hiking can increase happiness and decrease stress
Perhaps more potent than the physical benefits of hiking are the mental perks. Studies have shown that people who spend meaningful time in nature report increased levels of happiness, positive social interactions, and purpose in life, according to the American Psychological Association. And the effects outweigh those seen by walking in urban environments: A pair1 of2 2015 studies showed that, compared to their city-walking counterparts, people who took strolls in nature showed less anxiety, less rumination, and less activity in a part of the brain linked to depression.
Even the shapes we see on the trails can have a calming effect, Field Trip Health psychotherapist Mike Dow, PsyD, author of The Brain Fog Fix, previously told Well+Good. “Cities are made up of sharp angles from things like buildings, which the subconscious can perceive as danger, spiking adrenaline and cortisol levels,” he says. “Walking in nature exposes you to fractals, the soothing shapes that make up the universe (like seashells, snowflakes, and trees), allowing your serotonin levels to climb naturally.”
Phillips encourages hikers to try out the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” a type of mobile meditation where you focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural environment around you rather than, say, gabbing with your girlfriend about the latest work gossip. Studies3 show that slowing down to take in the natural environment around us on a hike can help put us into a more relaxed state.
4. Hiking can deepen relationships
People often recruit friends to hike with them, both for safety and enjoyment. And walking a few miles in the woods with your loved ones can help cultivate meaningful relationships. One study4 at the University of California, Irvine, for instance, found that sharing a sense of awe outside can bring us closer to each other.
Hiking can also make conversations easier. “You are often more concerned about your breath as you walk up an incline, or focused on the beautiful surroundings, and communication may flow easier,” psychologist Alyson Nerenberg previously told Well+Good about the relationship benefits of hiking.
Not in the mood to chat? Phillips says even hiking in silence with another person can foster feelings of connection.
It doesn’t take much
While all these physical and mental bonuses might inspire you to climb the closest peak you can find, just know that much like hot girl walks, hot girl hikes don’t need to be extreme to invoke all the advantages. Though longer hikes may offer deeper rewards. “We know the benefits are dose-dependent,” says Dr. Dow. “Having a long, unstructured, and meditative period of time in nature can better rebalance your neurotransmitter levels as you move from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode.”
That said, you probably want to leave Kilimanjaro to the pros. Just go after whatever trail near you feels accessible and fires up your own sense of adventure.
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
- Bratman, Gregory N et al. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 112,28 (2015): 8567-72. doi:10.1073/pnas.1510459112
Bratman, Gregory N et al.
“The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition.”
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(2015). doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005
- Miyazaki, Yoshifumi et al. Nihon eiseigaku zasshi. Japanese journal of hygiene vol. 66,4 (2011): 651-6. doi:10.1265/jjh.66.651
- Piff, Paul K., et al. ‘Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 6, American Psychological Association (APA), June 2015, pp. 883–899, doi:10.1037/pspi0000018
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