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Go take a hike

Hitting the trail provides tried-and-true health benefits

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MCT files


MCT files

With all of the trendy workout classes and boutique fitness studios out there, you might feel the need to get back to basics. But don't worry, simple activities can still get you in awesome shape: A recent study in the American Heart Association's journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found moderate exercise, like walking, and vigorous exercise, like running or spinning, produce similar health benefits. Have a sense of adventure? Kick it up a notch by taking your walks to parks and trails.

Humans have been hiking since, well, forever, but the nature-lovers' activity is about to get a buzz boost from Hollywood, thanks to the upcoming movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, an adaptation of the bestselling memoir of the same name. It follows the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked a large chunk the Pacific Crest Trail with absolutely no experience -- to inspirational results.

But there's more to hiking than hippie-dippy moments: Science, experts and hikers agree the activity provides tried-and-true health benefits, inside and out. Here are four research-backed reasons you should hit the trail:


Most trendy trainers tout high-intensity workouts, but few point out the fast and furious approach doesn't work for everyone. "Unfortunately, in today's environment a lot of what we see in the media is about going as hard as you can, as quick as you can," said Anthony Wall, director of professional development at the American Council on Exercise. All-in workouts surely have their place, but if they're not your scene, that doesn't mean you're a fitness failure.

With hiking, you can chart your own course: Is it a slowly inclining scenic trail or a steep trek up a mountain? And you set your own pace and distance, as well. Whether you decide on an afternoon hike, a weekend in the woods, or a long-distance experience, you aren't listening to a bossy spin teacher tell you to turn it up.


Straight-up walking can get your butt in better shape, but taking on sharp inclines, using trekking poles to propel you forward and clambering over rocks gives your body an all-over workout. "Physiologically, you're going to work your whole body, and especially the lower body -- namely the quads, glutes, and hamstrings," Wall said. "If you're carrying a pack, then you're going to challenge the strength and endurance of your upper body as well."


A study published in Biology Letters found group exercise heightened pain threshold, indicating a surge of an athlete's best friend: endorphins. Wall agrees: "We know that social group dynamics and working with like-minded people is something that makes people feel better." Aside from in-the-moment happiness, hiking helps build long-term friendships that keep you accountable to your fitness. A regular weekend meet-up or a planned long-distance trek can help you forge bonds while you shape up. Plus, interaction with the larger hiking community encourages you to engage with your workout as a lifestyle, rather than a chore, which will make you more likely to stick with it for the long haul.


A study published in Environmental Science & Technology states outdoor exercise is linked to "greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy." Yes, please! For those with desk jobs and 40-hour weeks, getting outside provides a mental reset. You may set out to tone your glutes, but you're getting much more. "The mental benefits of hiking will enhance the experience and can definitely have a tremendous benefit on your psyche when you come back -- back home, or back to the office," Wall said.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 D16

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