At first, walking and hiking may sound like two words for the same form of exercise. The footwear and scenery may vary, but the lower-body mechanics seem the same.
Surprisingly, though, they’re radically different. Research shows that your joints, heart and muscles perform in distinct ways during a hike compared to what they do during a jaunt around the block.
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“When you walk on a level surface, your body does a really good job of what’s known as passive dynamics,” says Daniel Ferris, a professor of engineering and biomechanics at the University of Florida. Your walking stride, he says, is like the swing of a pendulum. “Thanks to gravitational and kinetic energy, if I start that pendulum swinging, it’s going to keep moving back and forth for a long time without any additional energy input,” he says.
Like a pendulum, walking on flat terrain allows you to keep moving with little effort. “But when you walk on uneven terrain”—the type you’d encounter on nature trails, deep-sand beaches or other natural surfaces—“that knocks out a lot of that energy transfer,” Ferris says. “Your heart rate and metabolic rate go up, and you burn more calories.”
In fact, hiking on uneven terrain increases the amount of energy your body uses by 28% compared to walking on flat ground, Ferris found in a study he conducted at the University of Michigan. The varying ground slopes you encounter while hiking also make it different from flat-ground walking. Paths that go up, down and sideways require subtle shifts in the way your leg muscles lengthen or shorten while performing work, and those shifts increase the amount of energy you’re expending during your trek.
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But the benefits of hiking extend well beyond the extra calorie burn.
Navigating uneven ground—whether you’re hiking or trail-running—recruits different muscles than you would use on flat, man-made surfaces. “You’re turning on and strengthening a lot of muscles in your hips and knees and ankles that you don’t normally use,” Ferris says.
Pumping up those oft-neglected muscles may improve your balance and stability, which helps protect you from falls. Using those muscles may also knock down your risk for the kinds of overuse injuries—like knee or hip pains, or band issues—that can result from the repetitive nature of level-ground walking or running.
Of course, hiking isn’t without its own risks. If you’re not careful (and sure-footed), missteps can lead to rolled ankles, sprained knees, or even tumbles. Just as a novice runner or weightlifter is asking for trouble by kicking off a new routine with an extended, arduous workout, Ferris says inexperienced hikers may be more likely to injure themselves if they tackle a long, rocky hike right off the bat. You need to give those little-used leg muscles time to build up strength.
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While variable terrain works your body into shape, the sights, sounds and smells of nature may be performing a similar kind of alchemy in your brain. A 2015 study from Stanford University found that time spent in natural environments (as opposed to busy city settings) calmed activity in a part of the brain that research has linked to mental illness. Hanging out with Mother Nature also seems to reduce your mind’s propensity to “ruminate”—a word psychologists use for negative, self-focused patterns of thought that are linked with anxiety and depression. “I’d say there’s mounting evidence that, for urbanites and suburbanites, nature experience increases positive mood and decreases negative mood,” says Greg Bratman, a Stanford research fellow and coauthor of that study.
pending time in nature can work wonders for human health, from lowering blood pressure and stress hormones to sparking feelings of awe. Growing research suggests it may also improve sleep by resetting our internal clocks to a natural sleep cycle. A new study released in the journal Current Biology adds to that evidence by showing the sleep-promoting benefits of the great outdoors.
Kenneth Wright, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the new study, embarked on his camping research back in 2013, when he sent people on a week-long summer camping trip to understand how their internal clocks changed without electronics and only natural light. Before and after the trip, he measured their levels of the hormone melatonin, which alerts the body when it’s time to prepare for bed and helps set a person’s internal clock. Wright found that people’s internal clocks were delayed by two hours in their modern environment—which isn’t a good thing, since an out-of-whack sleep cycle has been linked to health problems like sleepiness, mood problems and a higher risk of being overweight. But they were able to recalibrate after a week in nature.
Now, in the new study, Wright set out to better understand how long it takes for people to recalibrate their internal sleep cycles and whether it also works in winter.
In the first part of his study, Wright equipped five people with wearable devices that measured when they woke up, when they went to bed and how much light they were normally exposed to. Wright also measured their melatonin levels in a lab. After that, everyone went on a week-long camping trip—but this time, it was during the winter.
Wright found that people’s internal clocks were delayed during their normal schedules—this time by two hours and 36 minutes—compared to when they were exposed to only natural light on their camping trip. They also had higher melatonin levels, which signals that it’s a person’s biological night. “We don’t know what this means, but we do know some humans are sensitive to seasonal changes,” says Wright. “Some people get winter depression or may gain weight a bit more.”
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In the second part of the study, Wright wanted to see what happened when some people went camping for just a weekend and others stayed home. Most who stayed home stayed up later than usual and slept in, and their internal clocks were pushed back even further. But on the two-day trip, campers’ internal clocks shifted earlier. “That says we can rapidly change the timing of our internal clock,” says Wright.
Fun as it may be, camping isn’t the only way to get similar results, Wright says: Exposing yourself to morning light, cutting down on electrical light from smartphones and screens in the evening and even dimming the lights at home can help.
As for Wright, he sets his internal clock by hiking in the morning, then waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. It appears to be working: he doesn’t even need an alarm clock anymore.