3 mental and physical health benefits of walking and hiking

Think that hiking is only for white, middle-class countryside dwellers? Think again. Anyone can get into walking, trekking and hiking – as Strong Women’s new walking series proves. Every week, the brilliant founder of Black Girls Hike, Rhiane Fatinikun, will be sharing a walking adventure and a different tip for becoming a confident hiker. This week: the physical and mental health benefits of walking.

Have you ever felt like your routine is getting a bit stagnant and monotonous? Like all your free time is being idled away in front of Netflix rather than pursuing any hobbies or meaningful social life? That’s where I was at when I decided to take up hiking.

I’d started getting anxious about how my spare time was being spent; I knew that I needed to do something more meaningful with it. Hiking seemed like a perfect way to get out more and explore. It’s free, relatively accessible and suitable for any level, so what did I have to lose?

Last week, I talked about the kit essentials needed to get started with hiking. This week, I’m sharing some of the benefits of hiking to get you motivated to get up and out. Here are my top three reasons for lacing up and heading out.

This week’s walking wonder

Overall fitness

The most obvious benefit of hiking is physical. Whatever your fitness level, walking is a great all-around exercise that almost anyone can do. It builds stronger bones and muscles, improves your core balance and increases stamina. A tough day on the hills is like an alfresco leg day – add a heavy backpack to the mix and you’ll definitely feel it in your quads, glutes and hamstrings the next day! 

It’s also a great cardio workout. I’ll be honest and admit that the reason I mute a lot of my Instagram stories when I’m sharing an amazing view is that I’m so out of breath! 

Better mental health

Exercising in nature has also been proven to have more health benefits than exercising indoors. Give me fresh air and sunshine over an air-conditioned gym class playing dance music any day. I like the fact that walking from A to B, surrounded by nature, doesn’t feel like a workout or a chore. I used to have a spin class teacher who would turn up your resistance if they didn’t think that you were working hard enough. When you’re outdoors, you can go at your own pace and intensity – which means that you’re more likely to stick at it.

Recent studies have shown that getting outdoors has played a key role in helping people cope with the stress of the pandemic, and that’s not just because our choice of alternative activities was so limited. 

Although it became increasingly popular last year, hiking and walking outside has long been linked to improved mental wellbeing. Some medical professionals even prescribe spending time in nature as a way of managing depression and feelings of anxiety. We know that physical activity produces stress-reducing, mood-boosting endorphins and reduces cortisol production, but you don’t have to run a marathon to reap those benefits. You get that same ‘runners high’ from hiking.

How many of us have said that we’re “going for a walk to clear my head”? Hiking is a mindful exercise; it helps you stay present, become more conscious of your surroundings and distracts from everyday stresses. 

If I’m struggling to close the tabs in my mind, I take a walk around my local park. It doesn’t need to be for long, but a walk outside always gives me the headspace I need to process my thoughts. Many of us live in cities and towns, so it’s not always practical to go for a cheeky hike at lunchtime or after work, but we all can try to make walking in nature – however small – a part of our daily regime. 

Sense of belonging

Where did you meet your close friends? For most people, the answer’s going to be education or work. If that’s you, how many hobbies and outside interests do you really share with your mates? I didn’t have any friends that hiked when I decided it would be my new hobby, which led me to setting up my own community of like-minded women. 

Joining a community like Black Girls Hike is a great way to forge new friendships. The commonality and environment help the conversations flow naturally – there’s no small talk, just substance, and it’s refreshing to gain new perspectives and genuinely connect with people, especially after a year in lockdown. Being part of a pack is even better if you’re a beginner who’s exploring a new interest because you’ll be supported while you build your skills and confidence, and it’ll keep you more motivated.

Rhiane set up her own community of like-minded women after realising that none of her mates hiked.

It’s worth remembering that we haven’t always lived in urbanised environments. Our dependence on technology and excessive screen time reduces our ability to focus; it’s totally logical that being outdoors and connecting with nature makes us feel so great. And that feeling of peace and connection is something we can access anytime – all you need is a decent pair of boots or trainers. What are you waiting for?

Rhiane’s hiking tip: join a community

Every week, I’ll be sharing something that hiking has taught me and this week it’s all about the importance of community. Community equals connection. As much as solitude can provide headspace and calm, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s the importance of human connection for our wellbeing.

There’s no wifi in the forest, but you’ll find a better connection with the earth and whoever you end up walking with.

Rhiane is the founder of Black Girls Hike. You can follow her and the group on Instagram, @rhianesworld and @bgh_uk.

Love hiking? Join us in September for the first Strong Women Trek. All proceeds will be going to Care International.

Images: Rhiane Fatinikun

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