Hiking is one of the oldest forms of exercise known to humankind. Whether it is traversing the Swiss alps or simply visiting your local trails, hiking is a peaceful way to enjoy the outdoors and burn a couple of calories.
Many people love hiking because it doesn’t require much to become a pro. As a form of exercise, it is accessible, equipment-free, and can be done almost anywhere. Especially in an environment where gyms are closed and classes have moved online, hiking can be a wonderful way to explore the great outdoors while also satisfying your exercise regimen.
Although few can deny that hiking provides your prescribed daily dose of happiness, is it really an effective form of exercise? What does hiking actually do for your body composition? Read on to learn the truth about hiking and how it can help with your fitness goals.
First, it is important to define hiking so that we’re all on the same page. Hiking can mean different things to different people. In general, hiking is described in exercise literature as sustained cardiovascular exercise with inclines performed in the wilderness. Sounds very technical, right?
The main purpose of this defined statement is to differentiate hiking from what folks may colloquially call a nature walk. You know, when you go around the block a couple of times with your dog or head to the park and back for fresh air. The core elements of hiking are that it is sustained, usually taking hours, and that there are inclines. As you’ll find out, these are the parts of the activity that really provide the fitness benefits.
Now that we’re all on the same page with definitions, let’s dive into exploring the effect of hiking on the body.
Muscling Your Way Through It
Although we often think of hiking as strictly a cardiovascular activity, it can also benefit your muscle mass and strength!
In a study done with high-functioning people aged 65-85 years, an intervention group was assigned to a seven-day moderate mountain hiking regimen that included significant inclines, balance challenges, and steady gait requirements. Both groups of participants were measured for several body composition indicators, including muscle mass and fat-free ratio. By the end of the seven days, the hiking group had a significant increase in appendicular muscle mass, fat-free ratio, and total body water percentage.
Recalling our primer on body composition measures, we’d say that this is an improvement on all accounts! Along with the body composition indicators, the hiking participants also experienced a significant increase in static balance, as well as gait speed. This is overall good news for hiking, especially given that this study examined an older population.
In general, as you age, your muscle fibers begin to degenerate, increased collagen deposition leads to less compliance, and your fat-free ratio decreases. This makes it all the more impressive that a hiking intervention was able to facilitate improvements in those measures, enhancing the participants’ fitness as well as minimizing the results of aging on the body.
Just to even things out, let’s take a look at a similar study that examined a younger population, where the average age was 29 +/- 1 year. This was a similar premise to the earlier study, except the hiking group underwent a 25-day hiking activity at high altitude. The body composition measures were also alike, with oral glucose tolerance tests thrown in for good measure.
The results showed that all the participants ended up with an increase in lean muscle mass, as well as a decrease in waist-to-hip ratio (WRH) mediated by a decrease in abdominal or central adiposity. There were also broad improvements in insulin sensitivity, which bodes well for diseases like diabetes.
To recap, these two studies showed us that hiking activities are associated with an increase in lean muscle, especially abdominal muscle, and a decrease in total body fat.
It’s the Climb
Remember the definition we set earlier? Hiking is defined by sustained movement plus inclines. Let’s discuss this last part. Why is the incline so important for body composition measures related to hiking?
Hiking as an activity is a natural form of incline training, which is a general descriptor for fitness activities that require the body to accommodate an increased floor angle. Incline climbing has become well-known in recent years as an important part of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) regimens. But fear not. On the trails, you don’t need to know how to program a treadmill—it’s au naturel.
Generally speaking, incline training is well-described in literature as beneficial for body composition outcomes. Specifically, plyometric training, which is a form of training that replicates the short bursts of energy and balance required for hiking, has been shown to induce significant changes in muscle volume and fascicular length.
A recent study placed eight healthy males on a plyometric and incline-based training regimen for six weeks, assessing before and after outcome measures. By the end of the six weeks, the regimen contributed to significant increases in fascicular length, muscle volume, and application-based measures like torque and power. Even more interesting, the muscle changes were noted to have begun after only two weeks of training, which is promising for those who are just starting their regimen.
Depending on your fitness goals, you may be looking for strength and muscle size, or you may be a part of the school of thought that uses calories as a proxy for putting in the work. From this perspective, it may be interesting to know how hiking stacks up to other forms of exercise in terms of average caloric burn.
A group of researchers explored this very question by going to a popular outdoor recreational area and randomly sampling walkers, runners, and hikers and then measuring their average caloric burn using wearable technology data. In the final adjusted analysis, it was found that the mean calories burned for walkers, hikers, and runners were 450, 992, and 781, respectively. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) also followed this same trend. As a limitation, the caloric burn will vary depending on age, body composition metrics, weight, height, and several other factors.
The most accurate data for you will be self-measured caloric burn during your workout using one of the many fitness trackers available. But this foundational study is still relevant because it shows that hiking does well when compared to other forms of daily fitness.
Step by Step
So far, we’ve discussed the body composition-specific benefits that come with hiking. But taking a step back, it’s always important to translate these outcomes into what they mean for you, your health, and how they can help with disease prevention.
Aerobic exercise of any sort is going to be beneficial for your cardiovascular health. But interestingly enough, consistent high-intensity hiking can also affect comorbidities—specifically, metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a prevalent condition that affects body composition markers, as well as creates a dysregulated system that increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Early research shows that consistent hiking may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, thus improving outcomes for the other cardiovascular and immune consequences.
This study aimed to measure metabolic syndrome markers over a 3-week span in a high and low altitude comparative hiking intervention. In the end, both groups had improvements in metabolic markers, indicating that hiking is beneficial for metabolic syndrome and that these effects hold at low and moderate altitudes.
This is particularly helpful because it suggests that integrating hiking into your fitness routine doesn’t have to be at a particular place or altitude—your local trails or hill does just as well in terms of mitigating the risk of metabolic syndrome and other chronic illnesses.
To sum it up, consistent, sustained hiking has positive results for body composition measures like abdominal mass, lean mass, waist-to-fat ratio, and fat-free ratio. It also has other fitness advantages, like an increased caloric burn, and lifestyle benefits like a reduced risk of chronic cardiovascular disease. Aside from the physical benefits, hiking can be calming for the mind by giving you an opportunity to step away from the screen and connect with nature.
Consider alternating your hiking routes to have variations in intensity, altitude, or inclines to see what produces the best body composition outcomes for you.
Jahnavi Curlin is a graduate of Harvard College and a physician-in-training at the University of California, San Francisco. She currently writes about health and wellness for national and global publications. Find her on Twitter @jahnavi_curlin and her website, curlincommunications.com.