The benefits of hiking are numerous, ranging from increased muscle strength and endurance to an enhanced feeling of well-being. I found myself personally going through some “stuff” and all I knew for sure was being in nature felt good. As it turned out, the more time I spent walking in the woods, crossing streams, and playing in the dirt, the more my soul felt just a little more replenished. This article will explore the benefits of hiking and my personal experience regarding how daily hiking healed every part of me.
Personal Experience with Hiking
I didn’t fully realize how mentally and emotionally drained I was when I embarked on a journey to leave my job and move to a small town in the middle of Kansas. I knew I needed time to unpack some emotional baggage I’d been carrying around for a lot of years that was holding me back. But that was about all I knew.
Without going into my life story, suffice it to say there was a lot of trauma early in my life. This led to a lot of hard work, drive, determination, and fortitude. Then there was single parenting, a spouse addicted to drugs, and just not the best life decisions. Yet my career was successful, with 25 years in corporate leadership roles, including relocations, massive travel, and progressive promotions.
I was tired.
Hence my purchase of a small home in the middle of nowhere.
I had hiked on and off throughout the past 7 or 8 years but honestly, I was a little bit afraid of getting lost (which I have done) and what I might find in the woods.
My Love for Hiking
I have always loved nature. Unfortunately, the travel and pace of my jobs left little time to spend amongst the trees. That, and I was directionally challenged. I loved hiking because all you needed was a good pair of shoes, some water, and maybe some bug spray (as long as you are just day hiking).
While I didn’t plan it this way, I lucked out to discover just two miles from the home I had purchased was a National Preserve with 11,000 acres of land just waiting for me to explore. This place soon became my best friend, confidant, and the impetus to explore lots of other places on foot.
I started small because I had to. Accustomed to sitting all day, I stayed on easy, flat trails and attempted to get 30 minutes or an hour in at the end of a busy day on the phone and conference calls. While those walks healed me just a little bit each day, they also helped me to realize I needed to leave that job and spend more time on the trail. I had accumulated 50 years of life trauma that needed to be dealt with in order to fully appreciate and enjoy the rest of my life. I didn’t know how I was going to make that happen because I wasn’t independently wealthy and yeah, didn’t generally play the lottery so, money was still an issue.
As is often the case, once you put your dreams out to the Universe, it works on your behalf. Before I knew it, I had an opportunity to freelance for a couple of years and this would give me the time, freedom, and income to figure out my next steps.
My Trusty Companion
My daily walks on the trail gradually became longer and longer. Before I knew it, I was hiking off the trail and deep into the woods. Louie, the very anxious and highly active black lab I had rescued rather recently, was healing too.
Louie had been adopted and returned twice and unfortunately was at a kill shelter where his time was quickly coming to an end. Because he had been returned he was becoming labeled as “unadoptable” with an expiration date.
I found Louie while living in an apartment and working in Louisiana (hence, his name). Apartment life was not for him at all. While I took him on long walks (at least what felt were long walks to me at the time) and to the off-leash dog park almost daily, he needed more. The energy was bursting from him and the anxiety of being left alone while I worked caused him to be destructive. I could see he wanted to be a good companion but just couldn’t deal with all the energy and anxiety oozing out of his body.
Our move to a house with a yard combined with daily walks at the Preserve changed his life, and demeanor, and probably added years of health to his (and my) future. He ran, frolicked, chased birds, went swimming, and became this well-adjusted, obedient, and happy companion.
We healed together, Louie and I. He saved me every bit as much as I saved him. Watching how much he loved just running in the woods gave me a different perspective on happiness.
The Physical Benefits of Hiking
If you are new to hiking and don’t quite understand the difference between walking and hiking, check out this article: Hiking Fundamentals: What is it and Why do People Do It?
Hiking offers several physical benefits that can differ from regular walking. Here are some of the ways hiking can benefit your body:
- Cardiovascular health: Hiking is a great way to get your heart rate up and improve your cardiovascular health. When hiking, you often climb uphill, which requires your heart to work harder and can help to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Improved muscle strength and endurance: Hiking involves navigating uneven terrain, which can help to improve your balance, coordination, and muscle strength. Hiking also works several different muscle groups, including your legs, glutes, core, and back.
- Weight loss: Hiking can be an effective way to burn calories and lose weight. Depending on the intensity of the hike and your body weight, you can burn up to 500 calories an hour.
- Reduced stress and improved mental health: Hiking in nature has been shown to reduce stress and improve mental health. Spending time in nature can help to lower cortisol levels, which can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Improved bone density: Hiking is a weight-bearing exercise, which can help to improve bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
While regular walking can also provide some of these benefits, hiking offers the additional benefits of navigating uneven terrain and spending time in nature. Additionally, hiking can provide a greater sense of accomplishment and a greater connection with nature, which can further enhance mental health benefits.
Check out this video of how I lost 50 lbs by walking and hiking.
How Hiking Impacted Me Physically
For me, the trajectory was gradual yet noticeable. What was once a 30-minute walk on the path was now a daily 8-10 mile, 2.5 to 3-hour hike deep into the Preserve. At 100 lbs overweight and out of shape, I could barely go longer than 30 minutes to start. Climbing hills was difficult at first yet quickly became a part of our normal routine. Climbing over fallen tree trunks, leaping across streams, and managing through forested areas became a daily and welcome challenge. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I could squat to pee without holding onto a tree trunk!
Little by little, I added more activity to my life. A bike ride here and there, and some weight training, and before I knew it, I had lost weight, started feeling better, and gained the stamina to go further. While I was healing my body, it gave me time to think about my past and future, where I wanted to go, and who I wanted to be. Anytime I can accomplish more than one task at a time, I’m all in!
Before I knew it, I was signing up for a 500-mile bike ride – something I would have only dreamed of doing when I first moved here. Read more about that adventure here: Day 1 My Personal Transformation
Emotional & Mental Benefits of Hiking
There is something about the sights and sounds of nature that can soothe a person to their very core. And while it’s difficult to put into words, maybe this brief video I recorded in the woods will help.
Hiking can provide a range of emotional benefits and positively impact mental health by reducing stress and improving overall well-being. Here are some of the ways that hiking can benefit your emotional and mental health:
- Reducing stress: Hiking can reduce stress by exposing you to natural environments, fresh air, and sunshine. Spending time in nature has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can help improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety. Related: Self-Care, How to Fit it Into Your Routine
- Boosting mood: Hiking has been shown to boost mood and increase feelings of happiness and well-being. Being physically active and getting outside in nature can release endorphins, the body’s natural mood boosters, which can help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Video: How to Boost Your Mood Immediately
- Improving self-esteem: Hiking can also help improve self-esteem and confidence, especially when challenging yourself on difficult trails. Accomplishing a challenging hike can provide a sense of accomplishment and boost self-confidence.
- Promoting mindfulness: Hiking can promote mindfulness by allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the present moment and connect with nature. Mindfulness can help reduce stress and improve overall mental health. Article: 5 Benefits of Mindfulness
- Encouraging social connection: Hiking can also provide an opportunity for social connection with friends, family, or other hikers. Social connection is essential for emotional well-being and can provide a sense of belonging and support.
- Mental Clarity & Focus: Enjoying nature increases focus. Personally, alleviating stress by being in nature helped me to solve personal problems and beliefs I’d been struggling with for decades. My thinking was clear and unencumbered. Related: How to Stop Procrastinating & Get Focused.
Overall, hiking is an excellent way to improve emotional well-being, reduce stress, and promote overall mental health. Whether you prefer a leisurely stroll in the park or a challenging hike up a mountain, spending time in nature can provide numerous emotional benefits.
Hiking has become a common activity in my life and I’ve accumulated a fair amount of hiking and camping gear. If you are interested in a few things to get started hiking (and/or camping), check out My Favorite Hiking & Camping Gear on My Amazon Storefront.
The Correlation Between Nature & Life
Being in nature puts life into perspective. Seeing how plants grow effortlessly reminds me that sometimes I make things more difficult than they need to be. Letting go is not a bad thing.
Embracing the seasons reminds me that my life also has seasons – a time for growth, a time for rest, and a time to completely shut down. If I disregard the need for the seasons in my life, it results in a lack of balance.
The brutal and howling winds of winter are reminiscent of challenges and obstacles to overcome. Hiking through the wet and heavy snow is more difficult yet I get stronger. And in all the trials of winter, there is still so much beauty to be seen. Article: Overcoming the Fear of Failure
We long for signs of life in the spring. When the first plants begin to peek above the snow, my heart leaps for joy. It’s my sign that life is just around the corner. Yet, while we love spring, it is only special because we just endured winter.
The stifling heat of summer can be suffocating. The plants struggle and become exhausted trying to quench their thirst to stay alive. They know their time is coming to an end. And while we can’t wait for the heat to end, we are a little sad knowing the excitement of life is slowing down.
And the fall, with all its colors of orange and red, reminds us that there is beauty even in impending death.
Seeing the life cycle of both plants and animals firsthand reminds me of how finicky our time on Earth can be. It becomes more important to do the most impactful things as quickly as possible. And frolicking in the woods is just as important as earning money.
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Every day I walked, regardless of the season, my soul did a little happy dance as I connected to the earth. As I watched a group of deer run across the prairie (and Louie chased them as if he’d know what to do if he actually caught one), I thanked the powers that be for providing this moment for me to witness.
With every sunset I was able to see from the top of a hill, I watched in awe with the realization I didn’t have any problems at all if I put them in the right perspective. Article: Maybe You’re Being Grateful for the Wrong Things
And with every step, I healed – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Until I became whole again.