Do you want to know the secret to living a long and healthy life? Ask the world’s centenarians and one of the major answers you’ll get is that these folks are out hitting the trails. In fact, 56% of centenarians around the world report taking at least one hike per week. Unlike a daily journey to the bus stop or even a regular treadmill session, hiking offers so much more than just plain walking. It involves prolonged periods of constant movement in nature, often uphill or downhill, and on an even ground, which works your balance, increases core strength and improves ankle, leg and hip mobility.
It may not be the be-all, end-all strategy to hitting the big 100, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s one of the most valuable lifestyle habits. It improves health from the ground up, delivering benefits to the brain, body and soul. It’s great for the waistline; and, you get to see places most people never will.
Hiking for health
This might not be the most obvious one, but hiking can reduce your risk of diabetes. When you hike and work your muscles for prolonged periods of time (longer than an hour), you body starts to reach to your glycogen stores for fuel (a.k.a. carbohydrates). This helps to keep your blood sugar levels stable, and your body to use insulin more efficiently.
Hiking also has huge anti-cancer benefits much like most exercise; when done regularly, you can decrease the risk of colon, lung, and breast cancer in particular.
Many people are deficient in vitamin D and opting to go outside and hike can ensure that you get enough of the ‘sunshine drug.’ Speaking of getting outside, did you know that you’re more likely to stick with consistent exercise if you do it outside?
Hiking for strength
Looking to gain some strength in your lower back? It’s a tough area to spot, but hiking can do the trick. Long backpacking trips carrying a heavy load demand good posture to bear the weight, so it can work your back and your core. It goes without saying that hiking is great for gaining strength in the leg muscles, and the benefits increase during longer, uphill hikes. Increased bone density, muscle mass and decreased belly fat are clear benefits of gaining strength, and all lead to a longer, healthier life.
Hiking for your brain
Our brain is wildly complex, and hiking is good for so many parts of it. The combination of unplugging and being immersed in nature has shown to be great for the creative thinking process, which can help you solve problems and create new neural pathways. It can also be suitable to supplement treatment of ADHD with, especially as an impulse control strategy.
The big one that leads to longer, fuller living?
Hiking for your heart
Much like plain walking, hiking has huge cardiovascular benefits, including those linked to better heart health. Studies show that walking for an hour per day, five days per week can reduce the risk of stroke by 50 per cent. The key is low-intensity, steady cardio - the body is constantly in motion, but exertion rates stay levelled, which keeps your heart rate rather steady. Hiking can reduce “bad” cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Hiking is a great way to get into the habit of walking for heart health, as it’s accessible to all fitness levels. Oh, and the scenic views of hiking don’t hurt, either. If you’re going to live a long life, you might as well take in all of the beauty that the world has to offer.
Hiking for mental health
Wilderness therapy is a valid form of psychological intervention, even for those who suffer from severe depression or other mental illnesses. Thus, anyone who feels stressed out, anxious or down can benefit from a walk in the woods. Naturally, the act of hiking removes you entirely from the inherent stress of everyday life.
For a period of time, you are removed from technology, work woes, excess noise and pollution, as well as your day-to-day duties. Being surrounded by nature helps your mind form a new perspective, live in the present moment and focus on the task at hand - getting to your final destination!
While just walking through an urban environment does have its benefits, studies have shown that 90 minutes in a more “natural” setting can have an even more positive effect through a decrease in neural activity and negative thinking. Powerful stuff, huh?
Getting started with hiking
If you would like to incorporate hiking into your healthy lifestyle, here is what you need to know:
- You can start today! All you need is a comfortable pair of walking shoes, ideally with good ankle support, and a small backpack to carry a bottle of water, some sun-screen and a hat, plus a snack and a map. Once you get into more serious, alpine style trails, you might consider investing in trekking poles. Yes, they may seem lame but they have saved my life a few times, and definitely my knees and ankles!
- Begin by researching the closest hiking trails in your area. I recommend starting with shorter, 3-4 hour hikes, which are perfect for day trips. You can usually get to your starting and finishing points by public transport or by car. Make sure to let someone know your hiking route and your estimated time of arrival. The same goes for longer trails.
- As you get comfortable with day hikes, step it up a notch with overnight trips as well as more challenging routes with longer ascents, higher altitude and even some scrambling up rocks and boulders. Make sure to carry plenty of water, I recommend getting a 2-3 litre water camelback that fits nicely in your bag. Longer trails mean heavier backpacks, which increases the physical demands of the route.
- Some of the most memorable hiking trips I’ve done have all been multi-day trails in remote locations, ranging from 1 to 2 weeks of hiking at a time. Long trekking routes can be done in two ways: camping along the way or doing a hut-to-hut route, or a combination of both.
- Don’t have anyone to hike with? Join a local hiking or mountaineering club or search for a hiking meet up group in your area. Shorter hikes are often lovely on your own, but it’s more fun to be able to share longer adventures with fellow trekkers.
My recommended multi-day trails
Isle of Skye Trail, Scotland – plenty of day-long hikes, which together form a multi-day trail across the isle. The whole trail can be long and strenuous, but there are many individual routes to choose from if you would like to be more selective.
Cairngorms National Park and Loch Lomond in Scotland offer many magnificent routes, but for something a little closer to London, check out coastal hikes in Dorset or the wonderful Peak District.
Tour Du Mont Blanc, Chamonix – this is 10-12 day trail circling the Mont Blanc massif that takes your through France, Italy and Switzerland. It can be done hut-to-hut or by camping, and some of the stages can be skipped if you’re short on time. Suitable for most fitness levels, however it does involve long ascents and scrambling over rocks and boulders. Check out my extensive blog post about this trek.
Everest Base Camp & Anapurna Circuit, Nepal – both are 12-14 days trails in the beautiful Himalayas and are usually done in a hut-to-hut style, and with a local guide or a sherpa. However, many hikers also do it in a group. This is high altitude hiking and can affect even the fittest people in the most unexpected ways. Incredibly rewarding, if you’re up for the challenge!
The Camino de Santiago – also known as the Way of St. James, this is bit of a rite of passage for many avid hikers and travellers. Originally a religious pilgrimage route, it has become a popular walking trail starting on the French/Spanish boarder and travelling across Spain to the Santiago De Compostela church in Galicia. There are many variations to this trail but you are looking at a whooping 700-800km in distance, which requires between 25-30 days of walking.
Best short hikes near London
Richmond Park, London
Epping Forest, The Oak Trail in Essex
Henley via Stonor Circular in Oxfordshire
Woldingham & North Downs in Surrey
Seaford to Eastbourne (great for sea views)
Hassocks to Lewes (good for some uphill hiking)
Hastings Circular, East Sussex
Salisbury to Amesbury via Stonehenge (longer trail at 15.9 miles)
So, put on those hiking boots, start exploring and live a long and healthy life!
Irena Macri is the creator of Eat Drink Paleo food blog and the co-founder of the 9-week Happy Body Formula program.