Hiking is an all-around great workout. Walking is one of the most beneficial exercises that you can do for heart health according to the American Heart Association, when you add a weighted pack into the mix as well as negotiating (sometimes) strenuous paths in the forest the benefits only increase. But even knowing all that, we still find ways to put that next hiking trip on the back burner in favor of less strenuous activity. So here are 10 reasons that putting off that next hiking trip is probably killing you.
- Heart Disease. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in men and women over age 40, much of this owing to our increasingly bad diets and a tendency to get less and less physical exercise as we age. The more we sit and watch television, grab artery clogging fast food and generally avoid strenuous activity, the higher our risk of heart disease climbs. But, hiking is one of the best cardio workout around. Nothing gets your blood pumping like carrying extra weight on your back and negotiating fallen trees, mountain paths and burbling streams with views so beautiful, you’ll forget that you’re exercising. So not only will your eyes thank you for going on that trip you’ve been putting off, your heart will too.
- Blood Pressure/ Blood Sugar. High blood pressure and irregular blood sugar are becoming more and more common with younger and younger patients every year. We have an endless supply of starchy, sugary snacks at our fingertips and more and more series piling up on our “binge list” on Netflix. This combination of bad habits can lead to a few extra pounds piling on before you even realize it and aside from bad eating habits and lack of exercise (I hope you’re seeing a pattern here) excess body weight is the leading cause of high blood pressure and those bad habits going on for too long can wreak havoc on your pancreas, eventually leading to irregular blood sugar or even Type 2 Diabetes. But, one of the best ways to drive off high blood pressure and blood sugar problems is to start living a healthier lifestyle by eating better and getting more exercise. So instead of reaching for that soda and binge watching the next season of The Walking Dead, grab a bottle of water, some of your favorite trail snacks and head out for a short hike instead.
- Weak Bones. As we grow older our bodies naturally stop funneling calcium into our bones. A problem that is further compounded for women who have children, because a growing baby will leach the calcium out of their mothers bones if not enough is present in her diet. Inactivity also leads to decreased bone density, which in turn makes it easier to break bones in the event of a fall or other minor accident. But weight bearing exercise is a great way to increase bone density. When our muscles are forced to lift or bear more weight than what they are used to, our bones are forced to support greater weight loads, so our bodies increase our bone density to accommodate the increased load bearing needs. This is why Doctors tell people with bone density problems to begin lifting free weights. But instead of heading to the gym and lifting weights, backpackers carry that weight in their packs.
- Weak legs. Much like the stomach and arms, the legs tend to be one of the first areas that our body looks to store excess body fat. Extra leg and butt fat is less than flattering and are two of the areas that most people wish they could shape and change. Smaller leg muscles and excess body fat in this area also contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. However, increasing the size of your leg muscles by walking with a weighted pack will help you trim away the excess fat from your legs and butt, and is also good for your heart. Many of the largest muscle groups in your body are in your legs. Your hamstrings, glutes and quads move a lot of blood when they are active. This blood has to be moved by the heart, causing an increased heart rate and improving heart health. It also leads to strong, good looking legs, and who doesn’t want that?
- Weaker core muscles. Your core muscles, i.e. you abs, obliques, hip flexors and back muscles, affect every movement we make in our daily lives. If you’ve ever done an intense core workout, you likely became painfully aware of just how much you use your core in the days following. Not only does a strong core help balance and stability, it also leads decreases your chance of heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other maladies. The opposite is also true, a weak core burns less fat as fuel, makes hernia-type injuries more likely to occur, leads to unflattering belly fat and makes you more susceptible to a laundry list of chronic preventable disease. But, shouldering a weighted pack and navigating your favorite trail passively builds up these muscles groups by holding the weight securely in place while you maneuver with your legs. Carrying weight long distances will quickly build up your core muscles.
- Poor Coordination. We gain absolutely nothing from watching television or sitting around the house. We lose time, gain weight and miss out on cool opportunities to make unforgettable memories. Walking on flat, level ground all the time lulls us into a false sense of security and leads to weaker auxiliary muscles in our legs and core that help up maintain our balance when we’re negotiating difficult terrain or maneuvering over boulders, fallen trees or unstable rocks. But hiking forces us to move over difficult terrain, often up and down gradual to step slopes and across all sorts of rocks, boulders, tree roots, branches, water hazards and undergrowth. This forces our minds and bodies to think and act quickly and builds cognitive awareness that increases our balance.
- Excess body fat. Being sedentary in our daily lives leads to a quick increase in body fat. Any time we don’t burn what we eat, we put on weight in the form of excess body fat and while it is not detrimental to have a little extra body fat, obesity is one of the most deadly chronic diseases in America and thousands more a year are falling into its clutches due to more and more people living sedentary lifestyles. But it’s no secret that hiking burns calories, thru hikers on the AT often lose between 20-50 pounds on the trail, and many are in great shape when they start. With a loaded pack and on moderate to difficult terrain a hiker can burn well north of 3000 calories in a day. Even a one to two hour hike can burn between 800-2000 calories depending on your body weight, the weight in your pack, and the difficulty of the route you’re on.
- Psychological health. We’re biologically designed to live in nature. We’ve evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to find our homeostasis in an outdoor environment. So naturally, when we’re deprived of the environment that our bodies developed to live in, we begin to see negative effects on our psyche and mental health. Because our ancestors lived for so long in the wilderness environment, many of the aspects of being outdoors effect our well being. They became basic needs over a very long time, basic needs that are no longer met by our man made environments. Another basic need that is not met as often as it was in decades and centuries passed is our connection to the community. Human beings are social creatures, but outside of our immediate families, people rarely get outside human interaction anymore. Society teaches us that we should be staying in and consuming artificial entertainment by ourselves or with a few members of our immediate family instead of going out with friends to seek entertainment outside of the home. Hiking is a great past time that only gets better when you include friends. Sitting by a campfire, having a few adult beverages and laughing and talking with friends is a great way to satisfy our need for human interaction and to be out in nature. This is a great way to get your blood pumping and stave off depression. Additionally, getting out and hiking and camping on your own or with close friends is a great way to build confidence in your ability to provide for and take care of yourself in harsh or uncomfortably situations. This builds confidence in what we can do, and helps alleviate anxiety.
So with all of the benefits that hiking brings to the table, extending our life, making us stronger and staving off depression and anxiety. Why do we continue to put off those next hikes? Do we really have anything more important to do? Probably not, so the next time you think of putting off that next hiking trip, remember all of the benefits that you’re passing up.
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