Hiker walking to mountains

The Health Benefits of Hiking and Social Support

David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.S.N., Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute | Herbalife Nutrition​ | June 19, 2018
Studies show there are real benefits to getting outdoors with friends for overall health and happiness. The #HerbalifeNutrition team tells you how reconnecting with nature and your workout buddies on a hike can help you recharge your batteries. https://hrbl.me/2y8GuMdClick To Tweet

Social media, email and the general 24/7 noise of life — particularly in urban areas — scatter our attention, leaving us more stressed. Disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature gives our brain a much-needed recharge. As our world becomes more urbanized, several studies indicate there are real benefits to getting outdoors with friends to hike for overall health.

Build bone density

Hiking is weight-bearing exercise, which means your bones and muscles work harder against gravity. This helps your body build or maintain bone density, which is critically important as we age. Studies show bone density declines about one percent a year after age 40. Getting outdoors for a hike could have a positive impact in helping to slow down this loss.

As an added bonus, hiking outdoors brings you a dose of Vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, which we need for bone health.

Improve sleep quality

A long hike in nature can not only inspire a post-hike recovery nap, but recent research suggests it may improve overall sleep quality.

In a 2017 study published in Current Biology, University of Colorado Boulder researcher Kenneth Wright measured subjects’ sleep cycles before and during a weekend camping trip. During the trip, when subjects were exposed to natural light only (no electronics), their melatonin levels increased and their internal clocks shifted earlier. The study suggests being around nature helps us shift to a natural sleep cycle.

Boost happiness

Physical exercise promotes the release of endorphins, a brain chemical that triggers positive feelings. Hiking, however, can improve our mood even more than a regular walk in the neighborhood.

Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman assigned 60 people to either a 50-minute walk in the woods or a walk along paved roads. Results showed that the nature-walkers experienced less anxiety and rumination, as well as more positive emotions than the urban walkers.

Want some happiness extra credit? Hike with a friend or two. Social interaction, especially with people with whom you have a strong bond, is an important ingredient for happiness and well-being.

Combat depression

That Vitamin D from the sunny outdoors that’s so essential for bone health also combats depression. Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, reviewed 14 studies that included more than 31,000 total participants to determine a correlation between depression and Vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D deficiency symptoms include fatigue, frequent illnesses, slow wound healing bone and/or muscle pain and depression.Participants experienced substantial improvements in depression symptoms after receiving treatment for Vitamin D deficiency.

In an expanded study, Bratman and his Stanford colleagues found that subjects that walked in nature for 90 minutes had increased activity in the subgenual prefontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression and anxiety when deactivated. The finding suggests hiking in nature positively impacts mood.

Social support

Exercise is already known to have many benefits for mental health, but a recent study found positive influence joining a group to workout can have on reaching goals. And the National Institutes of Health reviewed various studies that connect the benefits of social support to improved health and wellbeing.

Regular nature hikes strengthen our heart, lungs and muscles as well as our mind. And going with friends can also reap healthy benefits. So the next time you reach the top of a hill at the end of a dirt path, pause to admire the view and appreciate all you’re doing for your health and happiness.