Hiking has long been a favorite activity for those interested in spending time in the great outdoors while also getting fit. In Secrets of Aging Well: Get Outside, I share how hiking can provide you with the kind of fitness you can’t get in a gym, not that I’m anti-gym. In fact, I’m far from it. I’ve been on the management teams of various gyms, and I’m currently launching a new fitness company focused on the specific needs of people over the age of 50. But I am convinced hiking can give you physical and cognitive benefits you can’t get through gym training alone and that walking outdoors is one of the keys to a happier, healthier, and longer life.
Over the past 50 years, I’ve walked more than 100-million steps on seven continents, hiking and training for mountaineering expeditions. I began to notice the benefits of hiking in my early 30s when, in 1990, I crossed paths with a 75-year-old trail runner on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. I had never encountered an uber-fit person that age, and as he bounded past me near the top, he told me he’d been doing it two to three times per week since he was my age, and it kept him young. He rocked my world and set me on a similar path.
Getting Outside is the New 10,000 Steps
For the past year, the pandemic has kept people indoors, less active, and more anxious. Now that states have begun to reopen and spring weather has arrived, a great pent-up need for recreation and exercise has created a boom in hiking that spans all regions and age groups. With health experts increasingly confident in the evidence showing that viruses are transmitted much less readily outdoors than indoors, it’s definitely time to consider the many benefits hiking provides. It’s time to get yourself outside.
Stories are coming out every week from prestigious medical journals and top news sources about the benefits of getting outside—and now more than ever, people are responding. But it’s not just the greatly reduced risk of virus transmission that makes outdoor exercise an attractive option. Hiking strengthens the body, the immune system, and the brain in ways other forms of exercise don’t, especially as we get older, which is why I believe hiking is the fountain of youth.
Hiking Provides a Host of Benefits
• The elevated heart rate you get from hiking, plus the leg-centric emphasis of the activity, can trigger both angiogenesis (growing new capillaries) and neurogenesis (growing new brain neurons).
• This kind of intense exercise—elevated heart rate plus complex movements—not only strengthens the heart and muscles and builds endurance but it also makes your brain more resistant to cognitive decline by building new neural pathways. The more neural pathways you have, the more resistant you are to debilitating cognitive decline.
• The weight-bearing nature of hiking builds stronger bones and muscles, better balance, and faster reaction times, helping to prevent future falls and reducing injury in the event of one. This is important, because falls are the number-one cause of death in the senior population, costing the U.S. healthcare system more than $60 billion per year.
• Being out in the sun produces elevated levels of vitamin D, which gives you a more resistant immune system. So, not only do you get sick less, but if you should catch something, you will be able to fight it better and recover faster.
• Being outside for as few as two hours a week keeps your serotonin levels up. This helps increase your energy, elevates your mood, and reduces anxiety and depression. In addition, hiking possesses a powerful mindfulness component. The focus on the present, the awareness of your body and surroundings, and the multi-sensory stimulation all combine to create a potent meditative state.
• Being outside and away from your digital devices helps improve your natural vision by allowing your eye muscles to use their full range of motion. The small muscles that control eye movement and focus the lens can get cramped and tight if they experience too much two-dimensional, indoor screen time. Too much screen time is just not what we are made for, and it needs to be offset with three-dimensional, natural, outside time.
Dual Tasking Takes Hiking to the Next Level
The latest science in exercise physiology, neuroplasticity, and mindfulness adds a new concept, the importance of dual tasking, which is exercising your brain and body at the same time. Hiking is an excellent activity for dual tasking, as it requires movement, balance, vision, proprioception, and decision-making, all great cognitive activities that occur while you are working your legs, your lungs, and your heart. This can have a powerful renewal effect in addition to making you more creative, more focused, and more optimistic.
Hiking is the fourth most popular outdoor activity after running, fishing, and biking, and I estimate there are now more than 50 million participants in the U.S. alone. It’s growing fast, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 Outdoor Participation Report. While researching the book, I interviewed more than 100 hikers aged 50 to 80 to hear their stories and verify the science, and what an experience that was. I’ve never spoken to a group of people who were more energetic, optimistic, motivated, confident, and goal-oriented in the face of challenges. Hiking has given them the confidence and the energy to face life’s obstacles and walk right over them.
One woman shared the story of how climbing the highest mountain in Colorado just two weeks after a mastectomy gave her the certainty she was “still me.” An Illinois office worker described his lunchtime walks as his “secret weapon” for getting through stressful days. The book is laced with 25 similar inspirational stories plus lessons learned from my hiking experiences around the world.
Outdoor exercise, particularly hiking, is fundamental to getting fit and staying active. It’s not just about getting in your 10,000 steps, it’s the quality of those steps. Steps gained by hiking outdoors do so much more than treadmill steps or steps achieved in your daily indoor activities. Outdoor steps engage your brain like nothing else, which takes the benefits to an entirely new level. Hiking is something you can and should be doing to increase longevity. That’s why I call it the fountain of youth.