The health benefits of exercise have been so well documented that even the United States government has taken notice. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services compiled the known health benefits of exercise into its first (ever) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. At the top of their list of recommended physical activities is-perhaps not surprisingly-walking.
Walking and hiking benefits many health functions. Studies have shown that regular walking can:
Strengthen the cardiovascular system, decrease hypertension, and decrease cholesterol to reduce heart disease
Regulate blood sugar levels to prevent or improve diabetes
Prevent, or minimize, obesity to reduce such obesity-related conditions as Type II Diabetes and heart disease.
...and there's no appreciable difference between walking and hiking. Indeed, according to the American Hiking Society, "[t]aking a hike is merely taking a walk on a foot path, whether along a neighborhood trail or a mounting ridge. However, hiking in a natural setting will add to the pleasure of walking by offering the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors! (emphasis by the American Hiking Society)
But there are ways to increase hiking benefits to exceed those of walking. The answer lies in gradually increasing the distance, the intensity, and the weight bearing capacity of the hike.
Cross Training with Hiking
Unlike walking along the smooth surface of a treadmill or an in-door walking track, hiking on uneven terrain (uphill and downhill) engages muscles that are seldom used in other sports or exercises. For this reason, hiking benefits can include an excellent cross training workout that will help to improve overall physical and athletic performance.
To cross train with hiking, the ABC of Hiking website recommends that one:
- Start out slowly, walking just 1-3 miles twice a week over fairly even and consistent terrain. (During these beginning hikes, one should not include the weight of carrying a backpack).
- Over many weeks and months, slowly increase the distance until 9 miles can be walked with relative ease. As the mileage increases, the addition of a backpack will be mandatory in order to carry the necessary snacks and beverages. However, one should still strive to keep the weight of the backpack as light as possible.
- When one can easily hike for 9 miles, the weight of the backpack should be steadily increased until it reaches approximately 22 pounds, comprised of added foods/drinks and equipment. One should then hike with this weighted backpack until 9 miles can be comfortably achieved.
- Once this distance and weight of the backpack are achieved, one can then practice hiking on more challenging terrains such as the vertical plains of uphill and downhill walking. (As with other aspects of cross training with hiking, one should gradually increase the size and frequency of the hills hiked.)
- With patience and practice, an individual should eventually be able to safely carry 25 to 30 percent of his or her weight in the backpack while hiking.
By using these tips, hiking benefits can effectively and significantly exceed those of walking while providing one with the soothing sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
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