Happy International Take a Hike Day!
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” – John Muir
And how right he was! As a longtime lover of the great outdoors, I have always found that getting out for a walk in nature leaves me feeling physically and mentally refreshed. Hiking – whether a gentle stroll on a path in the woods, or a steep climb up a rugged mountain – is the oldest exercise in the books, and still has numerous benefits for our modern lifestyles. In recognition of National Take a Hike Day (November 17th), let’s talk about some of the great benefits of hiking.
1. Aerobic Exercise
Getting enough aerobic exercise is an important component of maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity physical activity per week to reduce risk of chronic diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, Type 2 diabetes,) and premature death, not to mention the benefits of improved strength, mobility, and fitness.
You don’t have to go on a multi-day trek in the backwoods, or ascend an alpine peak to reap the exercise benefits of hiking outdoors. Even a brisk walk on a flat wooded trail can be a great form of full-body aerobic exercise, burning about 400 calories per hour. Another major bonus of exercising outdoors is that people tend to exercise at a higher intensity when in an outdoor environment, with lower perceived exertion – meaning working out in nature can feel easier than working out indoors.
2. Better Sleep
We all know that getting enough sleep is an important component of healthy living, but did you know that hiking may help us get a better night’s sleep? Studies have shown that getting active in the great outdoors has a positive effect on our circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock), and can lead to longer, better quality sleep. Although we don’t know exactly what time of day gives the most benefits, those with sleep problems should consider getting in their outdoor activity in earlier in the day rather than the afternoon to reap the most benefits.
According to recent surveys, it is estimated that Canadians spend 90% of their time indoors, often sitting in front of at least one screen. We are so frequently tuned in to our various technological devices; this near constant demand on our attention can deplete our cognitive resources. Studies have shown that spending time in natural environments can replenish these cognitive stores, and lead to improved performance on creative problem solving tasks. Its isn’t clear whether the cognitive benefits stem purely from increased exposure to natural environments, or from decreased exposure to our distracting devices; however, regardless of the reason, it sounds like a pretty good excuse to unplug from our screens and tune in to nature on a hike.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D – commonly known as the sunshine vitamin – is an important nutrient that helps us absorb calcium from our diet. It is important for health of our bones, teeth, muscles, nerves, and immune system. In children, low vitamin D can lead to Rickets (soft bones and skeletal deformities), and in adults, low vitamin D can contribute to osteoporosis (low bone mineral density) and increased risk of fractures.
Vitamin D is commonly known as the sunshine vitamin, because unlike most vitamins which need to be ingested through food, vitamin D can be made by the body in spring and summer when the skin is exposed to natural sunlight (*with no sunscreen). Statistics Canada estimates that 1.1 million Canadians have a vitamin D deficiency – 25% of Canadians fall below recommended guidelines in the summer, and 40% in the winter. Spending more time outdoors can help us generate natural sources of vitamin D through our skin.
Studies have shown that while physical activity in general can have a positive impact on your state of mind, the same activity done outdoors has an even greater effect. Compared to exercise indoors, exercising in a natural outdoor environment is associated with greater positive feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction, and fewer negative feelings (anger, frustration, tension, depression, anxiety). Just being in nature has a positive effect on our mood, helping us mentally recharge, making us feel more caring, and overall happier.
Is becoming more physically active one of your goals? Well then, hiking may be for you! Whether you are new to exercise or are already fairly active, the best kind of exercise is the kind that you love doing and are likely to keep doing. Compared to people who exercise indoors, people who get their exercise in outdoor environments are more likely to express intention to repeat the activity again in the future, and are better at adhering to an exercise routine. Even a 10 to 30 minute walk can be more enjoyable if done outdoors, and can be a motivator to exercise more in future.
To maximize the benefits of hiking, it’s best to be prepared and be aware of potential safety issues:
Ticks and Lyme Disease: One of the unfortunate side-effects of climate change is that tick-checks post hike are important for preventing disease, even in the winter. The Public Health Agency of Canada as some helpful resources on how to identify ticks.
Poisonous Plants: You certainly don’t want to come into contact with any poisonous plants while out on a hike, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with what the common poisonous plants look like, before you find yourself in a patch of poison ivy! Check out this handy link from Explore Magazine about some of these plants found in Canada.
Equipment: Whether you are on an afternoon walk in the woods, or on a multi-day trek, make sure you are packing the right gear using this list from Hike Safe.
Footwear: In my former life, I used to work at an outdoor gear store and I sold countless pairs of hiking boots. I cannot stress enough the importance of finding good, sturdy, well-fitting shoes for your outdoor adventures! Shoes can make or break a hike. Poor fit can lead to blisters, pinched nerves, rolled ankles – nothing fun. Make sure you not only try on your boots before you buy them (many gear stores will let you have a 2-week tester period where you can wear them indoors to check fit) and break them in before you go on a longer hike – your feet will thank you!
As Canadians, we are so fortunate to live in a country with access incredible natural spaces – whether our National and Provincial Parks, or the plentiful local green spaces scattered throughout our cities and countrysides. A “hike” doesn’t have to be a daunting trip to the back country wilderness, you can enjoy the benefits of outdoor exercise in an urban park, a conservation area, or a countryside trail.
Autumn is a great time of year to head out for a hike: the gorgeous fall colours, crisp temperatures, not to mention fewer bugs! To find some trails or hiking groups near you, check out Hike Ontario for some ideas!
See you on the trails