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Benefits of Hiking You Should Know

Marion Sereti

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November 29, 2022
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What are the benefits of hiking? Hiking involves covering a substantial amount of ground in the great outdoors, usually with a group of people. You may climb hills, navigate rocky patches and tree roots, or pass over rivers and streams. There can be conversations with friends in between and pauses to enjoy the scenery. This enables hiking to seamlessly blend into that void between beneficial exercise1 and enjoyable social interaction, with a dash of the benefits for the mind that nature-based strolling gives thrown in for good measure. Without a doubt, hiking has a lot of positive effects on your health. 

This article is a treat for those who enjoy trekking and hiking or are considering taking up this healthy, enjoyable activity. The benefits of hiking to your health include:

1. Hiking Improves Your Respiratory Health 

Hiking can help you stay healthy and improve your respiratory condition. Although the COVID pandemic taught us to pay attention to them, we rarely think about our lungs unless we have respiratory problems. Hiking as an exercise is good for your lungs2 because it is one of the body's critical organs that come into action together with the heart in any physical activity.

The lungs supply the body with oxygen, which gives you energy and removes carbon dioxide, a waste product produced when you make energy. The heart sends this oxygen to the muscles that are working.

Strengthens Respiratory Muscles

According to the American Lung Association3, your heart and lungs must work harder when performing any physical activity, such as hiking, to provide the extra oxygen your muscles need. This regular exercise strengthens not only your muscles but also your heart and lungs. Your body gets better at transferring oxygen to the bloodstream and working muscles as your level of physical fitness increases.

Improves Lung Capacity

According to the National Institute of Health4, in a resting state, you breathe, on average, 15 times per minute. But when you are exercising, like scrambling up a rocky trail or high alpine hiking, your breath increases to 40–60 times per minute to keep your muscles working.

Simply walking or hiking a little bit more and being consistent is the key to increasing your endurance and lung capacity; the more you get out and walk, the better your lung capacity will become. 

Additionally, working on some incline-gaining hikes can stimulate your heart and lungs even more. Apply the breathing exercises and posture corrections you have been doing at home to real-world scenarios when hiking.

Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness

The term "cardiorespiratory fitness" describes the level to which your lungs and heart can keep supplying sufficient oxygen while engaging in any aerobic or rhythmic activity for an extended period. By enlarging the body's major muscle groups, aerobic exercise, like walking or hiking, can increase cardiorespiratory fitness. Even though exercise doesn't directly improve lung function, it helps develop5 endurance by strengthening your muscles.

People hiking in a field

2. Hiking Reduces Risks of Certain Respiratory Conditions

Exercise is healthy; it increases your health. Essentially, some respiratory illnesses can be avoided with regular exercise. The relationship6 between physical exercise and health status is more-or-less linear.

The American Heart Association advises7 engaging in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of strenuous activity each week. That would be any exercise that causes your heart to beat 50–60% quicker than it would at rest for 30 minutes, five days a week.

Cardiovascular/Heart Diseases

The CDC8 recommends walking as a form of physical activity for cardiovascular disease prevention. Additional supportive recent findings9 suggest that cardiorespiratory fitness positively affects the prevention of cardiovascular disease’s onset. Hiking lowers the risk of cardiac disorders including

  1. Artery narrowing or blocked arteries (atherosclerosis)
  2. Heart attack (ischemic coronary disease)
  3. Stroke (ischemic or hemorrhagic brain disease). 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

American lung Association10 recommends that even if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), regular exercise remains crucial to a healthy lifestyle. Exercise may not seem safe or even possible to you, but once you have found the appropriate kind and amount of activity, it can bring a lot of advantages. 

So, nearly everyone, even those with COPD, can benefit from walking as a safe and effective form of exercise; this low-impact (soft on the joints) exercise can increase the body's capacity to use oxygen, increase endurance, develop muscles, and promote general well-being. Once a solid foundation is formed, walking can be expanded to hiking and you may find yourself climbing hills you never thought possible!

A regular walking schedule can also help someone with COPD become more independent and improve their ability to tolerate exercise. However, before beginning an exercise program or modifying an existing one, see your doctor.

Additionally, before visiting locations at moderate or higher heights, such as hill summits, always consult your doctor because you may find it more difficult to breathe at higher altitudes if you have COPD or heart disease.

Asthma

Low-intensity activity such as walking is a good form of exercise for people with asthma. If the asthma is at least somewhat controlled, an alternative is to take a moderate hike. Select a trail that is primarily flat or gradually slopes upward. If you have asthma, you likely hike using an inhaler your doctor has prescribed, so don’t forget it. 

If you have allergies, before you go on a hike, find out how polluted your destination is and what the pollen count is, so you can assess the risk and potentially choose an alternate destination. When the pollution and pollen counts are low, you can hike.

The Mayo Clinic11 suggests that by managing symptoms with asthma medications and implementing preventative precautions, most patients with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (tightness in the chest, wheezing, and difficulty breathing) can continue to be active and engage in physical activity. 

Asthma is a common ailment among athletes; when it's under control, they can still compete at the highest level. For instance, consider Kjeld Hansen12 from Denmark, who has asthma and completed the New York marathon.

Cancer

An essential component of a cancer treatment plan is exercise. An increasing body of research13 demonstrates how regular exercise can significantly enhance both physical and mental health across all stages of treatment. Even if you weren't active before your cancer diagnosis, you may get moving safely and effectively with the aid of a fitness program that is tailored to your specific needs.

The American Cancer Society advises14 cancer patients to engage in at least 150 minutes of regular physical activity each week. Regular exercise, including walking/hiking/trekking, can reduce colorectal cancer recurrence risks by up to 50%.

Evidence suggests that physical activity may also reduce the risk of the following cancers;

  • Breast and Colon cancer15
  • Endometrial and ovarian cancer16
  • Prostate and Lung Cancer17
A man hiking

3. Hiking Helps Lower Blood Pressure

Hypertension is one of the most common health conditions in the world. Luckily, walking can decrease blood pressure almost as effectively as jogging. A 2015 pilot study18 found that people who spent two weeks hiking in a moderate altitude environment had considerably lower blood cholesterol levels. Blood cholesterol levels are related to blood pressure levels; higher blood cholesterol is connected with higher blood pressure. The participants in this study had metabolic syndrome, a group of illnesses characterized by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and abdominal obesity, and still gained benefits from hiking.

The American Heart Association19 recommends simply walking three or four days a week for an average of 40 minutes at a moderate to vigorous tempo to receive this benefit.

4. Hiking Increases Bone Density

Osteoporosis and Arthritis

Research at The University of Washington discovered that over nine months, women with osteoporosis who walked for an hour three days a week boosted20 their bone density in the spine and other regions of the body by 6%.

By boosting bone density and reducing the rate of calcium loss, hiking and walking can help mitigate the harmful consequences of osteoporosis. This will strengthen the bones and reduce their brittleness.

5. Hiking Boosts Mental Health

Hiking is not only a physical experience but also a mental experience. 

A multitude of cognitive functions are improved by hiking because it boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain. These include happiness, concentration, focus, and memory. Your brain functions better thanks to oxygen and blood flow, which also encourages your body to release more chemicals that make you feel happy and content.

Additionally, walking in natural settings, such as forests, reduced anxiety, anger, and weariness compared to walking in suburban regions21.

6. Hiking Improves Your Sleep 

Several studies show that indulging in regular physical activity during the day can enhance nighttime sleep. However, most research has used either college students or adults with specific health or clinical sleep issues, such as insomnia. Few research has looked at how healthy adults' sleep quality is influenced by physical exercise.

To investigate this, Brandeis University researchers conducted a recent study, published in the journal Sleep Health22, which discovered that healthy persons without any signs of a clinical sleep disorder sleep better at night when they increase the amount of time they spend walking each day.

According to its authors, the study's findings indicate that we don't necessarily need to follow a scheduled, intense exercise regimen to get better sleep. A 20-minute walk during lunch at work or a few extra blocks when walking the dog at night may increase our daily activity levels sufficiently to improve our sleep quality.

Bottom Line

Hiking/walking is wholesome and enjoyable. This adventurous workout boosts your mental health, respiratory health (lungs), and bone density, and helps lower lung cancer. Who knew such a simple act could net you multiple benefits!

The most crucial action you can take to maintain the health of your lungs is to take care of them. Smoking will limit your capacity to exercise and perform to your full potential. The more you hike, the better your respiratory health, and you'll be able to tell the difference!

References
  1. Mitten, D., Overholt, J. R., Haynes, F. I., D'Amore, C. C., & Ady, J. C. (2016). Hiking: A Low-Cost, Accessible Intervention to Promote Health Benefits. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 12(4), 302–310. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616658229[]
  2. Your lungs and exercise. (2016). Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(1), 97–100. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.ELF121 []
  3. American Lung Association. (2020, July 13). Exercise and Lung Health. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/exercise-and-lung-health Retrieved November 17 2022.[]
  4. Your lungs and exercise. (2016). Breathe (Sheffield, England), 12(1), 97–100. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.ELF121[]
  5. Chin, L. M. K., Chan, L., Woolstenhulme, J. G., Christensen, E. J., Shenouda, C. N., & Keyser, R. E. (2015). Improved Cardiorespiratory Fitness With Aerobic Exercise Training in Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injury. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 30(6), 382–390. https://doi.org/10.1097/htr.0000000000000062[]
  6. Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 174(6), 801–809. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351[]
  7. Haskell, W. L., Lee, I. M., Pate, R. R., Powell, K. E., Blair, S. N., Franklin, B. A., Macera, C. A., Heath, G. W., Thompson, P. D., Bauman, A., American College of Sports Medicine, & American Heart Association (2007). Physical activity and public health: updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(9), 1081–1093. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.185649[]
  8. Omura, J. D., Ussery, E. N., Loustalot, F., Fulton, J. E., & Carlson, S. A. (2019). Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention. Preventing Chronic Disease, 16(180690). https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd16.180690[]
  9. Murtagh, E. M., Murphy, M. H., & Boone-Heinonen, J. (2010). Walking: the first steps in cardiovascular disease prevention. Current opinion in cardiology, 25(5), 490–496. https://doi.org/10.1097/HCO.0b013e32833ce972[]
  10. American Lung Association. (2021, March 5). Physical Activity and COPD. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/living-with-copd/physical-activity Retrieved November 17 2022.[]
  11. Mayo Clinic Staff (2020, December 16). Exercise-induced asthma. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/exercise-induced-asthma/symptoms-causes/syc-20372300 Retrieved November 17 2022[]
  12. European Lung Foundation. (n.d.). Patient interview: Kjeld Hansen. ELF. https://europeanlung.org/en/news-and-blog/patient-interview-kjeld-hansen/ Retrieved November 17 2022.[]
  13. Clague, J., & Bernstein, L. (2012). Physical activity and cancer. Current oncology reports, 14(6), 550–558. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11912-012-0265-5[]
  14. American Cancer Society. (2022, March 16). Physical Activity and the Person with Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/be-healthy-after-treatment/physical-activity-and-the-cancer-patient.html Retrieved November 17 2022[]
  15. Vainio, H. & Bianchini, F. (Eds.). (2002). Weight Control and Physical Activity: IARC Handbooks of Cancer Prevention Volume 6. World Health Organization. https://publications.iarc.fr/376[]
  16. Friedenreich, C. M., & Orenstein, M. R. (2002). Physical activity and cancer prevention: etiologic evidence and biological mechanisms. The Journal of nutrition, 132(11 Suppl), 3456S–3464S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/132.11.3456S[]
  17. Friedenreich, C. M., & Orenstein, M. R. (2002). Physical activity and cancer prevention: etiologic evidence and biological mechanisms. The Journal of nutrition, 132(11 Suppl), 3456S–3464S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/132.11.3456S[]
  18. Gutwenger, I., Hofer, G., Gutwenger, A. K., Sandri, M., & Wiedermann, C. J. (2015). Pilot study on the effects of a 2-week hiking vacation at moderate versus low altitude on plasma parameters of carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in patients with metabolic syndrome. BMC research notes, 8, 103. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-015-1066-3[]
  19. American Heart Association. (2017, December 14). American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults. https://rb.gy/h3erm5 Retrieved November 17 2022.[]
  20. Krall, E. A., & Dawson-Hughes, B. (1994). Walking is related to bone density and rates of bone loss. The American journal of medicine, 96(1), 20–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/0002-9343(94)90111-2[]
  21. Song, C., Ikei, H., Park, B.-J., Lee, J., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2018). Psychological Benefits of Walking through Forest Areas. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(12), 2804. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15122804[]
  22. Bisson, A. N. S., Robinson, S. A., & Lachman, M. E. (2019). Walk to a better night of sleep: testing the relationship between physical activity and sleep. Sleep health5(5), 487-494. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2019.06.003[]

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