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Take a hike!

Hiking isn’t just a good cardiovascular workout. It may also enhance your strength and balance while lowering your stress.

Image: Tomwang112/ iStock

Autumn can be a great time to spend time in the great outdoors after summer’s heat, humidity, and bugs have dwindled away. Hitting the trail in a local forest or other natural area may also offer some heart-related benefits that go beyond your typical neighborhood walk.

“The nice thing about hiking is that it exists along an entire continuum, from a gentle walk on a flat wooded path to mountain climbing,” says Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Nearly everyone, regardless of age or athletic ability, can find a hike that offers the right level of personal challenge. And hiking may even offer some unique physical and mental benefits, Dr. Baggish says.

Finding trials near you

Looking for hiking venues? Local, state, and national parks are a good place to start.

American Trails ( is a national nonprofit organization that supports local, regional, and long-distance trails for hiking and other uses; check the “Trails” tab to search by state to find hikes in your area.

Cardio fitness and beyond

Like brisk walking, hiking is a good way to improve your cardiovascular fitness, particularly if your route includes some hills, which will force your heart to work harder. Hiking on the slightly uneven surface of a trail also provides a natural way to engage the core muscles in your torso and to hone your balance skills. “You usually don’t get that type of lateral motion from walking on a treadmill or riding a bike,” says Dr. Baggish.

However, if you have problems with stability or vision, using walking or trekking poles can give you an added level of security on uneven terrain. Use poles with a spiked metal tip when walking on dirt or grass. Plant the pole out in front of you as you walk to take a little pressure off your knee joints. You can also use poles for Nordic walking (see “Nordic walking: Adding strength and stability”), which is best done on flat surfaces or gently rolling hills.

Natural stress relief?

Yet another advantage of hiking may be the restorative and stress-relieving powers of being outside in nature. A number of small studies hint that spending time in green space—nature preserves, woodlands, and even urban parks—may ease people’s stress levels. Giving the growing consensus that stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease risk, anything you can do to mitigate stress is likely helpful. In that realm, the benefits of hiking remain anecdotal, but outdoor enthusiasts tend to agree. “There’s a real sense of peace and composure you get from being outside and away from everything,” says Dr. Baggish, whose own passion is not hiking but running on trails in the rugged peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Here are his tips for a safe and enjoyable hiking experience:

  • Bring a map and hike with a partner. A companion is good for both company and safety. If you go alone, let someone know when you plan to return.

  • Wear hiking boots. Choose well-fitting footwear with good ankle support. Make sure to break them in with shorter walks so you don’t get blisters when you’re miles from a trailhead.

  • Stay hydrated. Don’t forget to take plenty of water along, especially in warm, sunny weather.

Nordic walking: Adding strength and stability

Originally designed as a summer training regimen for cross-country skiers, Nordic walking uses special poles that help you propel your body forward as you stride. Using poles adds an upper-body workout to your walk that tones your arms, shoulders, and back. This increases the number of calories you burn, without making you feel like you’re working harder. Several studies have shown increases of 20% to 25% in cardiovascular workload and calorie burn. Yet people using poles tend to report ratings of perceived exertion that are similar to walking without poles.

Consider purchasing your poles at an outdoor store where an employee can advise you on the best poles for your purposes, help you adjust the height, and give you a quick primer on their use. Most have metal tips (for use on trails) and attachable rubber tips for use on asphalt or concrete.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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