All The Mental & Physical Benefits Of Hiking
The lowdown on #FitTok's favorite weekend activity.
If you’re a big fan of hot girl walks, why not up the ante and go on a hot girl hike? By seeking out rugged terrain, a winding trail — and maybe even a pretty view or two — you can easily turn a casual stroll into an epic workout.
Hiking is packed with both physical and mental benefits, so it makes sense why it’s become everyone’s go-to weekend activity. On TikTok, where hiking videos have racked up nearly 10 billion views, you can find folks going on soft hikes, following loop trails, or attempting to trek up a whole mountain. And honestly, it all looks like a good time.
Outdoor hiking is where it’s at, but it’s possible to simulate the experience with indoor walking workouts, like Peloton’s hiking series. If you have a treadmill, you can strut up an incline and change your speeds to snag a lot of the same benefits of a mountainous hike, says Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy.
“Sometimes we include intervals of speed, intervals of waving inclines, endurance sections that spend longer durations in moderate speeds on steep climbs — all with the perfect playlist,” she tells Bustle. “It’s also an excellent source of training to hit the trails.” If you practice hiking on a tread, she says you’ll minimize your risk of tripping on the uneven, challenging terrain outdoors.
Feeling the itch to fill up a Nalgene, lace up your boots, and hit the trails? Here are all the benefits you can expect.
Is Hiking A Good Workout?
Whether you walk down a trail or scramble up a hill, the answer is yes: Hiking is a great workout. That’s because it combines cardio, muscle strengthening, and endurance training elements, says Ellen Thompson, CPT, a certified personal trainer with Blink Fitness. Of course, the further you go and the more uneven the terrain — think bumpy trails or rocky inclines — the more intense your workout will be.
Plus, as Thompson points out, being in nature improves your mood. Nothing beats a nice view and fresh air when it comes to boosting your mental health. “Combine that with the release of endorphins from physical exercise, and people tend to feel better after a hike,” she says. It also offers a chance to get away from stress: “A hike is the perfect brain break,” Kennedy says.
At its most basic level, of course, a hike is a walk — and “walking is one of the healthiest things we can do,” Kennedy explains. When you do it on an incline, you increase all the benefits tenfold, especially in terms of heart health. “Hiking is an absolutely legit cardio workout,” she says. “While hiking is low impact on the joints, the combination of power walking and steep inclines delivers high outputs that are comparable to a jog on a flat road.”
Trekking through nature causes your body to adjust to changing terrain, which in turn improves your balance and stability, Thomson adds. A hike can also contribute to enhanced mobility and joint health since you’re constantly moving. As far as your muscles go, the main focus is on the lower body, Thompson says, but your core is included as well. Here’s what muscles you work during a hike.
The muscles on the fronts of your thighs are connected to your knee joint, which means they’re engaged as you extend your legs to march forward. “They are activated and crucial for uphill climbs and steep descents,” Thompson says.
Your hamstrings, located at the backs of the thighs, work with the quads to control your speed during descents, she says. It’s why the back of your legs get particularly tired during extra hilly treks, so don’t forget to stretch before and after.
The booty build is Kennedy’s favorite hiking benefit. “Don’t forget to squeeze your glutes as you hike,” she says. Not only do your buns play a role in driving you forward, but they also light up as you go uphill — and even more so if you scramble over a rock.
“The calves are heavily utilized as they are key to moving forward uphill and maintaining balance on uneven terrain,” Thompson says. It’s why hikers always have strong muscles peeking out above their boots.
“The sleeping giant is how much your core is challenged in hikes due to the incline,” Kennedy says. “Make sure you're driving your arms and match your arm swing to your leg speed so you can deliver more power. Overall, if you're doing it right, your whole body should feel like it got a great workout.”
How To Make A Hike More Challenging
According to Alicia Filley, PT, MS, a physical therapist and hiking pro, beginner hikers should start on level walking surfaces and gradually increase the distance over time. “Try a short nature trail in a local park or green space, then read trail reviews to find a trail that is within your ability level so you set yourself up for success,” she tells Bustle. You can also use hiking poles to increase stability and improve balance.
Once you’re ready for a more challenging hike, set out on trickier trails, go longer distances, and increase what you carry. “Carrying a loaded backpack is a quick and easy way to increase the challenge when hiking,” Filley says. “As your ability improves, you’ll naturally want to try more difficult trails, which will be further or will have greater elevation or technical challenges.”
Attempting an indoor hike? Kennedy recommends leaning forward on the treadmill as you walk up the incline. Keep your chin parallel to the ground, strike from heel to toe, let your arms swing by your side, and take quick steps. And whatever you do, don’t hang onto the handrails. “You won't get the most out of the workout and you'll be teaching your body to always find the path of least resistance and muscle memory of incorrect form,” she explains.
Whether you soft hike in a park, walk on an incline at the gym, or go all out on the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s bound to be a good workout.
An, N. (2022). Walking and Activeness: The First Step toward the Prevention of Strokes and Mental Illness. Comput Intell Neurosci. doi: 10.1155/2022/3440437.
Rebecca Kennedy, Peloton instructor
Ellen Thompson, CPT, certified personal trainer with Blink Fitness
Alicia Filley, PT, MS, physical therapist, hiking pro