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5 Benefits of Hiking for Fitness and Health

Caitlin Updyke, MS, RD

Published in Fitness

9 min read

August 3, 2022
a person hiking on mountains
a person hiking on mountains

Hiking is a fun outdoor activity that helps you spend time in nature, soak up some sunshine, and bond with friends. 

If you’re an outdoorsy person or just love being in nature, hiking might just be your favorite way to exercise. From mental health benefits to physical health benefits, hiking can improve your overall well being in a variety of ways.

Let’s have a look at what makes the health benefits of hiking unique and how you can get the most out of this outdoor sport. 

What Type of Workout is Hiking?

Hiker standing a top a hill overlooking the greenery and view

Hiking is a unique, low-impact activity that combines cardio and muscle-building into one exercise.

In order for an exercise to be classified as cardio, it must increase your heart rate and breathing to maintain an aerobic state. Some examples of cardio exercises include things like trail running, biking, and speed walking.

On top of being a cardio workout, hiking is also considered to be a body weight workout. This is because it engages several muscle groups such as your glutes, hamstrings, quads as you push your body over inclines, slippery slopes, and rocky terrain.

You may also even engage your upper body muscles such as your biceps, triceps, and even your back muscles if your hike involves climbing over boulders or especially tricky trails. Plus, because hiking doesn’t involve a lot of jumping or excessive running, it makes for a great low-impact activity.

What Makes Hiking Different

There are a few key differences that make hiking different from other activities or exercises, and if you’re a hiker, you know this already!

Apart from combining a mix of cardio, bodyweight training, and low-impact activity into one exercise, hiking can also help you engage your mind in the present moment. 

When it comes to cardio exercises, you may find that you place more focus on the movement itself as well as on regulating your breathing. For some, cardio workouts like walking or hiking can create a sort of “flow state”, helping to improve your mood and practice mindfulness.

When it comes to hiking, you may place more focus on your surroundings as you spend time in nature as opposed to traditional strength training done in an indoor gym. Because the focus is on the scenery and exploration, hiking feels like a very natural movement—and that’s what sets it apart from a lot of workouts and exercises.

Outdoor hiking can also help you feel less like you’re in a gym alternating between the lunges, squats, or crunches that you’d do in a HIIT (or high-intensity interval training) workout, and more like you’re moving intuitively and exploring nature while stimulating your muscles.

5 Benefits of Hiking

The distinct movements required for hiking give this activity some amazing health benefits. Here are five health benefits of hiking that support increased fitness and better overall health.

1) More Time Spent in Nature

Person hiking in the mountains wearing hiking gear

Because the very nature of hiking involves being surrounded in awe-inducing nature, hiking can benefit both our physical and mental health. Research shows that spending time in nature can improve mental wellbeing, lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, and increase overall wellbeing.

Spending time in nature also usually means spending more time under the sun. Getting a safe dose of sun exposure is another healthy lifestyle habit that can boost both vitamin D levels and insulin sensitivity.

One literature review found that getting an adequate amount of bright sunshine was linked to reduced insulin resistance. This same study also indicated that sunlight exposure may improve LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and may decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.

2) Hiking Decreases Blood Pressure

Hiking can also be a great exercise for your blood pressure for a few different reasons. First, hiking is a form of cardio exercise, which is great for cardiovascular health.

Next, as we mentioned, hiking also involves being surrounded by nature and sunshine, which can benefit metabolic health. Other research has shown that hiking in forests especially can lead to decreased systolic blood pressure. 

These studies indicate that hiking doesn’t only promote healthy blood pressure levels, but it can benefit cardiovascular health overall.

3) Hiking Promotes Healthy Blood Sugar Levels

Group of hikers walking in forest

The global prevalence of diabetes is estimated to be over 460 million and is projected to reach 578 million by 2030. Metabolic syndrome, a condition that involves insulin resistance and hypertension, is three times more common than diabetes.

Luckily, hiking and other types of physical activity can help you regulate your blood sugar. One recent study investigated high altitude trekking, an advanced variation of hiking, and its effect on blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. 

The individuals who participated in this type of hiking were observed to have improved blood sugar levels and better fasting insulin levels, while maintaining good glycemic control. Hiking was also found to improve blood lipid levels, which can also contribute to better metabolic health.

Using a CGM on your fitness journey can help you observe your glucose trends and may even be useful to help you fuel your body adequately for longer hikes.

4) Hiking Can Lead to Better Sleep

However, hiking can improve the quality of your sleep. Some research has found that hiking in a forest improved the quality of sleep of participants, resulting in better sleep patterns and little to no interrupted sleep.

The group that was studied reported that they felt their sleep was better and they slept for longer periods of time after forest hiking. High quality sleep is crucial for metabolic health and overall wellbeing. 

Research shows that high quality sleep can lead to:

On the other hand, poor quality sleep can have a host of negative health effects. If you’ve ever been sleep deprived, you may already have experienced side effects like:

  • Emotional distress
  • Reduced cognitive function
  • Reduced quality of life in those with chronic conditions
  • Increased somatic pain throughout the body
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular problems
  • Poor metabolic health and/or metabolic syndrome
  • Increased risk of certain cancers

5) Hiking Can Improve Weight Management

Person hiking on mountains

Hiking, like any other exercise, can be used to support weight management as well as healthy weight loss.

Cardio exercises like hiking can be a great way to burn calories by maintaining a steady walking speed and focusing on getting your heart rate up. By adding hiking to your workout regimen and maintaining a balanced diet, you may find that you are able to achieve sustainable, healthy weight loss.

On the other hand, the strength aspect of hiking can help build muscle. Studies show that an increased muscle mass can increase your metabolism, and hiking can be an easy way to strengthen your lower body and build muscle.

Hiking also improves blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, which can be supportive of weight management. Elevated levels of blood glucose can be stored as fat, which is why helping the body better manage blood sugar can be a great and effective way for healthy weight loss.

How to Get Started With Hiking

If you’re a complete beginner to hiking and are itching to get started, here are our best hiking tips for beginners:

Choose a hiking trail that reflects your current fitness level

If you’ve never hiked before, try a local trail in your neighborhood or your area before moving onto something more advanced.

A lot of hiking spots mark the fitness level of each trail (beginner, intermediate, advanced), so make sure to choose one that fits your current hiking fitness level and experience. If you’re not used to elevation gains, choose a terrain that is more flat and even.

Bring Snacks, Water, and Sunscreen

Group of hikers eating food on picnic table

If you’re going for a day hike, pack quick snacks like homemade trail mix or fresh fruit in your bag. You’ll also want to make sure to pack necessities such as water or an unsweetened electrolyte drink such as coconut water to stay hydrated.

Remember to carry a good sunscreen with you if you plan to be out in the sun all day. Here’s a list of Nutrisense dietitian-recommended sunscreens.

Invest in Hiking Boots

Planning to hike through rain or mud? You may want to invest in high quality hiking boots. There are lots of brands out there at different price points, so find a pair that suits your needs. Here’s a list of some of the most popular hiking boots currently available.

Hike with a Buddy

Trio of hikers wearing hiking gear and walking in forest trail

To help you stay motivated or even just to spend more quality time with friends or loved ones, try inviting them to join you on your hike! Being surrounded by nature will bring you into a more mindful place, which will create the perfect opportunity for quality time with your hiking buddy.

Create a Training Program

To take hiking to the next level, you may want to create a workout routine that utilizes this activity. You can schedule a long-distance hike to boost your daily steps every weekend and mix it up with shorter (and higher intensity) hikes on weekdays for extra cardio.


Woman sitting on edge of cliff

Use hiking as an opportunity to get more grounded. If you spend your time thinking of the next thing you have to do or your entire to-do list, hiking is your chance to quiet those thoughts down.

Use the five senses technique, look around as you hike, and think of five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

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When you join the Nutrisense CGM program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

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Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Reviewed by: Katie Kissane, MS, RD

Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

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