I recently figured out that I’ve hiked at least 500 times in my life — and that’s probably a gross underestimate.
I’m in my mid-30s and I’ve been hiking consistently since college. I also live in southern Arizona
, where we have an abundance of incredible trails. We in Arizona generally don’t hike in the summer (“we” being anyone in their right mind, that is). So taking those factors into consideration, I came up with this extremely scientific equation: 5 hikes per month x 8 months a year (October through May) x 15 years = 600.
Of course, there have been times when I didn’t complete five hikes in a month, sometimes for consecutive months. Heck, I’m sure there have been times I didn’t hike at all for a month or two. On the other hand, there have been several months when I hiked as many as 10 trails. I also travel extensively — often during the summer, to escape the 120-degree temperatures — but I’m not counting any summer hikes. So even if my calculation of 600 hikes is high and we call it 500, the bottom line is, I hike a lot.
I often say that hiking is my church, my therapy, my gym, and one of my favorite ways to decompress. For me, the benefits of hiking are plentiful — and the scenery is just the beginning.
Brain Benefits of Hiking
There’s no question that getting plenty of exercise and fresh air is good for your brain (and literally everything else, for that matter). Hiking combines both, but how do those benefits translate to everyday life?
This one doubles as a physical benefit, but I’m focusing on the brain boost. Shortly after hiking and when I hike consistently (i.e., a few times a week), I experience a notable energy burst. Understanding the basics of brain chemistry, I know this is the result of my brain releasing endorphins and dopamine — “happy chemicals.” However, instead of just a short-lived spurt, that chemical release turns into me being more productive throughout the day, thinking more clearly, making decisions more efficiently, and even sleeping better. And all of these things combined means I feel more energized overall.
Like so many other people today, my life is fast-paced and oftentimes over-scheduled. It seems there’s always an email or call to return, a deadline to meet, or an appointment or activity to rush to — and zero downtime. Hiking gives me much-needed quiet time when I can literally unplug and unwind. The best way I can describe it is that hiking feels like home, comfortable and soothing.
When I’m hiking, particularly when I’m solo, I self-reflect. I occasionally listen to guided meditations (this
is one of my favorites, but I like any that focus on productivity and drowning out external “noise”), but more often than not, I simply think. I think about my short- and long-term goals, my progress toward them, how to tackle my to-do list, and about the relationships in my life.
I find that spending this time looking inward and working through my thoughts makes me more self-aware, which has a host of other benefits for the brain. Increased self-awareness leads to less worry and anxiety, more self-confidence, and deeper relationships.
Physical Benefits of Hiking
We all know that exercise in any form has multiple physical benefits, but it turns out that hiking is a super workout
. For me personally, I notice benefits in a few key areas.
Strengthens physical endurance
I suspect this is just as much about mindset as it is the physical aspect, but hiking works wonders for increasing strength and endurance. Physically, hiking involves navigating uneven terrain, constantly stepping up and over, ducking down, and trying to keep your balance. Combined, these skills lengthen muscles, build strength, and improve endurance.
On a metaphoric level, hiking increases endurance by teaching me to (literally) go the distance even when the going gets tough. As the famous saying goes, “The best view comes after the hardest climb.”
Better sleep quality
I always sleep incredibly well after hiking, even if it’s a shorter trail. It makes perfect sense, because aside from the physical work (that up-down repetition is intense, especially with a hiking pack on!), my brain is constantly “on.” Between the endorphin rush and increased sunlight intake, everything’s functioning like a well-oiled machine — which makes for a sound night’s sleep!
Admittedly, this is true of any exercise, but I definitely notice it more with hiking specifically. After a hike, I’m far less likely to make unhealthy food choices or snack out of boredom. Maybe it’s the mindset that I don’t want to wreck other healthy habits or perhaps physically hiking simply controls appetite. Whatever it is, I enjoy the trimmer midsection.
Hiking Is Good for the Soul
Aside from the many, many benefits of hiking, I honestly just really enjoy it. It’s good for the soul. I know that sounds cheesy, but I truly believe it. Can you think of any other activities that simultaneously give you a killer workout, help you de-stress, and offer epic views? Me neither. If you need me, you know where to find me.