Imagine a pill that lowered your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and strokes, all while improving cognitive function, mental outlook and firming your glutes.

How much would you pay for all that? It’s yours for the price of a pair of hiking boots and the occasional blister. A growing body of research is pointing to hiking, whether that means a long walk in urban greenspace or climbing craggy peaks in a remote wilderness, as the antidote to the mental and physical health problems caused by a modern lifestyle heavy on screens and short on exercise.

Like other weight bearing exercises, hiking boosts bone density and helps avoid age-related ills like osteoporosis and arthritis. It also lowers the risk of heart disease, improves blood pressure and helps prevent diabetes. Web MD has a good summary of benefits here.

Hiking backpack and boots in South Tyrol Austria
Hiking backpack and boots in South Tyrol Austria

But as researchers move out of the lab, they are finding that hiking has benefits that can’t be replicated on a treadmill. Some of the most striking benefits come from the need to overcome the sort of physical obstacles you won’t find in a gym. Think of it as cross-training, old school. Climbing hills helps you burn more calories than that treadmill and gaining altitude makes your body work harder, encouraging yet more weight loss.

Because hiking often involves uneven terrain and lots ups and downs, it is more challenging to the core than walking on straight level asphalt, especially if you are wearing a backpack. More on these benefits here. That uneven terrain also helps improve balance, which tends to deteriorate with age and increase the risk of falls – one of the largest causes of injury and death for people over 65. As impressive as the physical benefits, the mental benefits of hiking may be even more important in an age of increasing anxiety and depression. A 2015 study by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment found evidence that walking in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression.

Hiker in Himalayas mountain
Hiker in Himalayas mountain
Running man walking in a puddle splashing his shoes
Running man walking in a puddle splashing his shoes

Published in the National Academy of Science, the study found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area showed much less activity in a part of the brain that is active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – than people who walked the same amount of time in a high traffic area. Read more here.

After their walks, both groups were given questionnaires and brain scans. While both groups showed much the same physiological benefits, they differed widely in terms of their mental health.

One of the authors, James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford, said the findings are important because they are consistent with the idea that nature makes us feel better. This in a time when more of us are living in cities.

Hiking couples with poles
Hiking couples with poles

A 2012 study of the effect of longer term hiking – participants spent four days on the trails – found that longer trips are associated with fewer indicators of depression in a study of people who were at elevated risk of suicide. More on this here.
Improved creativity and overall cognitive function were among the benefits that other researchers found. Follow this link for more.
The bottom line? It is like your mom always said, step away from the screen and go outside. You will feel better, in all sorts of ways.