Is Hiking the BEST form of exercise? Really?

If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, its how to think outside the box. Over the past 6 months or so, Katie and I have not only begun hiking, but we made it part of our every day lives. It became a priority. We hiked almost every day, and as a result, feel amazing in so many ways. Sounds boring right? Guess again.

One day, I was walking through the woods on a gorgeous summer day, feeling like a million bucks, with my dog at my feet and my wife a few meters ahead and I realized, this is likely one of the best forms of exercise out there!! No kidding. How can I convince my patients to give it a serious try? Seems simple enough but people don’t give hiking enough credit when it comes to fitness. I know I didn’t.

When most people think about exercise, they immediately get really intimidated. Most forms of exercise, admittedly, require a certain level of physical fitness that, unless you have it, can make exercise really really unpleasant. Wasn’t that long ago that I hit the trails on my mountain bike with a buddy and ten minutes into the ride I was literally throwing up at the side of the trail. Yeah. Not good. Not much fun at all in those circumstances. I hadn’t ridden much over the summer and my fitness level just wasn’t where it needed to be to keep up with him.

If you’ve ever been to a gym, you know exactly how intimidating it can be. If you’ve skied, mountain biked, roller bladed, paddle-boarded, skated, swam, run a 5k, a 10k or any other distance for that matter, or done any other significant form of exercise, you’ll know exactly how that feels. Sometimes it’s even a challenge to even begin an exercise like that due to fear and intimidation. Kind of hard to get fit when you’re too afraid to try. Trust me, I know how this feels.

Hiking, on the other hand, is really really different, and for so many reasons.

You don’t need to have a ripped body, or a super low resting heart rate to walk on a trail. You don’t need to time yourself, or check your heart rate if you don’t want to. You can, of course, but it isn’t a requirement. You don’t need to buy a bunch of expensive gear. A decent pair of shoes and a water bottle will be enough to get you out there.

Who would have thought that a nice walk in the woods, looking at the trees and checking out mushrooms and keeping your eyes peeled for deer could actually be a workout?! That’s the cool part about it. All while you’re doing your mushroom and leaf research you’re burning a ton of calories, getting fresh air and vitamin D, C and others and doing an incredible service for your body. At some point on every hike, my brain finally gives up the fight and just lets me be. Its a disconnect that is unlike any other I’ve experienced. I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone. I don’t feel like anyone is watching me. I feel kind of free. Cheesy I know, but name one person you know, including yourself, who couldn’t use a bit more freedom right now.

But let’s be honest about it. Hiking can also be a solid workout. Judging but the number of “water breaks” we take on our way up a hill or the way my heart is pounding when I get to the top, there’s some good quality exercise happening here. Like I said, you can make it as easy or as hard as you like. It’s up to you. That’s the beauty of it.

The mental health component of hiking is paramount. Being able to disconnect in our current social climate is priceless. I can think of few better ways than to walk in the woods, listen to the birds and wind in the trees and to have the opportunity to get lost in your own thoughts, even for a few moments. Allowing your brain the opportunity to think about something other than (no offence) what a friend is eating for lunch on Instagram, or the latest info on C-19 on Facebook allows for creativity, problem solving and ideas you never would have had otherwise.

You decide how far to go and how fast you want to get there. At first, you may want to start really slow and enjoy every single step. You may want to just go for it and see what happens. That’s ok too. That’s the point. There are no rules or guidelines. Other than a couple of birds, the odd chipmunk or squirrel, there’s no one there watching you. Literally no one. If you happen to come across another super friendly hiker, they’re too busy worrying about their own hike and when they can get back to walking to worry about what you’re doing. Seriously. I’ve also never met an unfriendly hiker, so there’s also that.

In no time at all you’ll notice your steps getting quicker and more sure-footed. You’ll notice those nagging extra pounds get shed from the parts of your body you were never able to target at the gym, with that fad diet or running kilometre after kilometre. You’ll notice your walking stride getting longer and feeling more and more comfortable. You might notice those irritating pains in your lower back starting to lessen as the intrinsic muscles get stronger and your spine more stable. You’ll notice those ankle injuries you’ve nursed for years and years starting to fade as you break up scar tissue and your flexibility improves. You’ll likely get a few blisters. Maybe a nasty one or two. That’s ok. That’s just your body adapting to a different kind of stress. Let them heal and get back at it. It’ll be worth it. Been there, done that. No biggie.

I realized that even an elderly person, who is able to walk with care on certain trails, could do incredibly well by challenging their bodies and brains to recalculate many times a second due to the uneven terrain and physical obstacles. Stimulation to the brain as we age is just so important and can make all the difference in a healthy brain. Taking their time and having a hiking buddy with them, could be so amazing for physical and mental health. If this is done with care, its definitely possible.

I’ll be honest, for the first 51.5 years of my life, I thought that hiking was kind of boring. That’s not true. I definitely thought it was boring. No adrenaline and literally no speed involved. Man, was I wrong. As I started to hike more I realized that the benefits I was gaining were so much different than just pounding a trail on a mountain bike or skiing down a hill as fast and hard as I could. Taking the time to actually enjoy my environment was completely new to me. Moving my body through the woods was both visually stimulating as well as physically and I really fell in love with it. Even as I write this I’m convinced that everyone I tell will think I’m out of my mind and only think that going to a gym is the only way to get fit. Nope.

We’ve hiked in the cold, the rain, the wind, the heat, the sun and every version of weather we’ve had so far in the past 6 months. We set a goal back in June to walk 300km by September. Well, we’re way past that and were way closer to 400km than 300. Crazy. Just kind of happened. Didn’t need to think about it. We just kept going because we love it. Now, I’m wracking my brain to try and find a way to continue hiking all year long.

Finding something physical that we actually LOVE to do is the ticket to finding something we’ll do even on the days we don’t necessarily want to, or when the weather wants to keep you inside. If you enjoy it, you’ll do it. If you don’t, you won’t. Period. That’s just the way it is. Think about every exercise you’ve ever done and then ask yourself if you actually would want to do that thing right now. And then again tomorrow. And the day after that. We know that it’s best for us to be exercising 3-5 times a week so finding something that can fill a couple of those requirements is literally gold.

If I had a wish for you, I’d wish that you’d just give it a solid try. Get out there a few times with NO expectations, totally prepared to make your hiking experience your own and no one else’s. Do some easy trails first. Get your feet wet in it and discover how amazing you feel when you’re done. I won’t speak for one of my hiking buddies, she can do that if she wishes but I’ll say that my other hiking buddy has lost a ton of weight, has better mobility in her hips and shoulders and literally loses her mind when she hears we’re going for a hike. She’s jumping over logs and spanning river crossings, climbing rock faces and managing tricky sections with ease. Not bad for a 10 year old chocolate Labrador. For me, I’m down 32 pounds and feel incredible. I literally can’t wait for my next hike. I’m thinking about it right now actually. It’ll happen asap. Tonight likely.

I hope I see you on the trail. Give it a try. You won’t be sorry.

Dr. B