The hedonism (and healthiness) of hiking

Photo by David Shankbone

Photo by David Shankbone

What’s the most enjoyable and exhilarating way to fight depression, cardiovascular disease and a host of other ills?

Hiking is an all-season pursuit with many benefits, but perhaps most important is the pure hedonistic joy of it. Although it’s not for everyone — many of my nearest and dearest would rather not — I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember, and I love it. Of the sports I enjoy I’d have to say it’s at the top.

Only fear of bears and human predators keeps me from getting out there all the time. When I was a kid in Vermont I ran around in the woods fearlessly alone, or with a buddy, a gang of kids, my class or the whole school. Or my family. My mother, once an enthusiastic hiker, is a veteran of many solo backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail. Hiking is in my blood. I always did it just for the fun of it, with no thoughts to its physical and mental benefits.

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Hiking is the epitome of flexibility. It can be done any time of day or year, at any level from a casual half-mile stroll on flat pavement to extreme mountain climbing on the highest peaks. If you customize your ventures to your fitness level, you won’t burn out. You can keep the fires of fervor for the sport ever burning.

What I love about hiking is how it can combine beautifully with other interests I have, like appreciating nature’s flora and fauna, foraging for edibles, camping, travel and admiring art. If you’re a shopper you can hike a huge mall like Woodbury Commons, although some studies have shown that with the absence of fresh air and varied terrain the mental and physical benefits dip sharply. The British mental health group Mind found in a study that outdoor hikes lower depression and boost self-esteem and mood, while shopping-center walks do the opposite.

Hiking satisfies, or at least teases, the essentially human desire to explore and conquer. Going uphill here, downhill there, adjusting your pace, provides the variety the treadmill lacks, not to mention the discovery of more interesting and varied vistas than whatever’s on the TV at the gym. Like other aerobic workouts it benefits the heart, blood vessels, lungs, muscles and bones all over your body. Carrying a daypack full of water bottles ups the advantages.

“Walking is one of the lowest impact sports around,” maintains the American Hiking Society. “This means that while you derive all the cardiovascular benefits of other aerobic activities, you do so with a minimum of stress, strain and pounding to your body.”

Hiking fights diabetes, some cancers, osteoporosis, hypertension, high cholesterol and overweight. Mental benefits include control over insomnia, depression and stress, as well as heightening a sensory awareness that is lacking in this all-too-technological age. Unplug, put away the phone, and listen to the birdsong, feel the sun on your skin and breathe in clean piney moss-scented air. And do it as often as you can, even if for just a few minutes, scheduling longer jaunts as time allows.

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