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How Hiking Makes You Healthier, Happier—and Smarter

There's a science behind hitting the trail: Besides getting fitter, benefits include improved brain function and mood (toss those Prozac pills over the mountaintop).

It doesn’t take much smarts to figure out that hiking can be a healthy pastime, but did you know that it can also help make you smarter?

From losing weight to staving off the degenerative effects of depression and Alzheimer’s, hiking may be the best choice for a comprehensive workout benefiting mind, body and spirit.

It’s well known that increased foot mileage decreases the waistline, but there are benefits to hiking that can’t be found on a treadmill or within the confines of a gym. Fresh air, loads of sunshine and even the dirt beneath one’s feet can be credited for improving cognitive function while decreasing anxiety and depression.    

It’s no coincidence that in addition to hats, shades and sunblock, many people hitting the trails are also wearing smiles. Brisk walking has long been associated with the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, but there’s another reason for friendly trailside dispositions: bacteria. 

Commonly found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae stimulates the same neurons in the brain as Prozac does, according to a 2007 study in London—making getting dirty a plausible alternative to expensive medication in treating depression. 

The neurons involved are responsible for the production of serotonin, the chemical the body releases for a sense of well-being. Even cancer patients have reported a brighter mood and better quality of life when explosed to the bacteria.

Mycobacteria and other microbes found in dirt are also believed to increase immunity in children, reducing their risk of allergies and asthma attacks caused by pollen, pet dander and other environmental factors. But the effects on the brain don’t end there, and those reaping the most benefits from outdoor exercise may be on the other end of the life cycle spectrum.

A mile a day is all it takes for seniors to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by about half. A 2010 study conducted at the University of Pittsburg determined that walking one mile each day increases gray matter, including in the frontal lobe where higher brain functions such as problem-solving and reasoning take place (although longer distances didn’t translate to increased benefits.)

Other common conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes and blood pressure can all be prevented, managed and even reversed by regular strolls, according to U.S. health guidelines. While increasing circulation, respiration and joint mobility, hiking is also a low-impact workout.  

And it’s almost never too late to start. Through regular hikes, the ageing process can be reversed, and with an hour of physical activity everyday, the chance of premature death can be reduced by 40 percent. But even about two hours a week of “moderate-intensity, low-impact physical activity improves pain management, function, and quality of life,” the guidelines read.

When hiking a comfortable two miles per hour, a person weighing 150 pounds will burn 240 calories in one hour, and a healthy weight translates to cardiovascular health, according to the American Heart Association. 

But hiking doesn't just lower the risk of heart disease or counteract years of damage wrought by stressful lifestyles--hiking strengthens the heart, it lightens the mind, it soothes the soul.

For comprehensive health, hiking is nearly unparalleled--it's like a massage for for the entire being. And while it can be tailored to the needs of individuals, the benefits can be shared by all.

joyce hong April 14, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Hiking along with a healthy lifestyle are some of the keys to good heath.
Julie Walmsley April 15, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Love this! I am sharing this with my hiking Meetup group - though it's stating the obvious to my fellow hikers. :) Also, I found the part about the immunity-boosting benefits to children really interesting.
Susan R April 21, 2012 at 05:52 PM
I would help except you can hear the amplified sound system from Divine Saviour Catholic church all the way on the trials in Elysian Park. Turn off that noisy sound system!!

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