There's no doubt about it: Hiking is having a moment. By now, we know spending time in nature comes with tremendous benefits. It has a scientifically proven anti-inflammatory effect on the body, it promotes a healthier microbiome, and Japanese Forest Bathing—or shinrin-yoku—has been associated with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system.
Exercise has a similar effect on the body. From greater feelings of happiness to reduced heart disease risk, you'd be hard-pressed to find a medical professional who doesn't recommend regular exercise. And while many of us have turned to our local yoga studios for a dose of calm movement, 2018 has brought a resistance against spending so much of our time inside, and that includes for workouts.
"It's only natural that there's a backlash against our 95 percent indoor lifestyle, eight daily hours of social media consumption and indoor boutique gym workouts," explains Michelle Cady, health coach and FitVista founder. While the benefits of yoga are tremendous and it's not likely to ever go away, experts say hiking is moving to the forefront as the go-to stress-busting, peaceful workout. Here's why.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense.
While our ancestors would seek shelter to guard against harsh weather and stay safe from predators, human beings aren't wired to spend so much of their time inside. Actually, we're wired for long walks in nature. "As hunter-gatherers, we'd 'hike' all day looking for food sources, and our human bodies have evolved over the centuries to absolutely love and crave long walks," explains Cady. "We're built for it. Hiking is a proven meditative activity—the repetitive motion of each 'step, step, step' calms you down, decreases stress response, and lowers cortisol levels in the body.
Cady also points out that hiking is especially beneficial for the city-dweller. "Escaping to nature is the natural antidote to life as a city-dweller," she explains. "Compare the city's loud noises and 'industrial colors' to the 'green zones,' 'blue zones' and solitude you find out in the woods. It's so peaceful."
Exposure to nature arguably has more benefits than yoga.
Neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.. says there are few things more important to our health than spending time in nature. "Nature allows us to tune in to our body's natural rhythms, which is super important to our health," she explains. "Studies on nature's effects on human health have proved that if humans are regularly exposed to natural surroundings, there is decreased incidence of depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, headaches, and overall inflammation. In urban neighborhoods where the community has access to a park, there is decreased risk of these disorders."
She adds that one way to get both exposure to nature and exercise at the same time is hiking. "Hiking is beneficial not only because it immerses us in nature, but it can be as strenuous as we want it to be and can challenge our heart and muscles. We can do it alone or with other people. We can do it whenever and wherever," she says. "And we can stop, look, and listen, taking the time to absorb the world around us, which also provides a time for meditative contemplation, which also is beneficial for our health."
Ruhoy adds, "There's no reason we cannot stop and do an asana or two at the same time." So yes—maybe we really can have it all.
Want ideas for where to go hiking? These are the 25 best fall hikes.
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