You'd be hard pressed to find someone who couldn't use just a little more calm in their life. From mindfulness apps and meditation classes to mindset-shifting workouts, it seems like we're all looking for a way to reconnect to ourselves and the world around us––and for many, yoga is the answer. Whether you're deep breathing through a downward facing dog or finding peace in pigeon pose, yoga has long been one of the most popular ways to find your zen, while also getting in a good workout.
But an old favorite has been making a reappearance on the exercise scene lately––and it might just give you many of the benefits of yoga for health, with the added bonus of some outdoor time: hiking!
Hiking is nothing new––in fact, as humans we evolved to take long walks outdoors long before we had time for leisure activities––but we're starting to get a deeper understanding of its health benefits beyond the physical. In fact, studies are showing that hiking may have parallel benefits to yoga when it comes to mental and emotional health, plus some extra microbial benefits that you just can't get on a yoga mat in a studio.
The Health Benefits of Hiking
It's no surprise that hiking is good for you physically: navigating uneven ground challenges your body in ways that a walk in the park (or a run on the treadmill) can't, causing you to burn more energy and strengthen muscles you don't normally use as part of your daily life, while also giving you a little balance training.1
Plus, hiking encompasses a dynamic cardio workout that helps keep your heart working properly and balances your blood pressure, provides a light challenge to your bones and joints that can help you maintain bone density, and promotes the weight loss that comes with physical activity.2,3
But hiking is also really beneficial for your mental and emotional health. Studies show that exercising in nature can help put your body in "rest and digest" mode, not only lowering the potential for bouts of inflammation and protecting your immune and brain function, but also releasing anxious thoughts and promoting a good mood.4,5
In fact, spending just 90 minutes engaging in walking exercise in nature produces reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that’s associated with repetitive negative thoughts and closely correlated to a long-term low mood.6
And that’s not all! Research indicates that the endorphins released while hiking can preserve a positive mindset, and even help you maintain your memory as you age in a way that taking a walk in an urban setting just can't.7
How Does Hiking Affect Your Gut?
One thing that really sets hiking apart from other types of exercise is the extra benefits it has for your gut microbiome. Exercise in general has amazing gut health benefits––in fact, it can increase the diversity of your gut microbiota by up to 40%! Do it outside and you've got the added bonus of being able to pick up bacteria you might otherwise never have encountered from the everyday environment around you.8,9
Since your gut microbiome tends to be healthier when it's more diverse, hiking can be a great natural way to support your microbial health.
What's more, the mental and emotional benefits you get from hiking can also give your good guys a break from the damaging effects of stress. You see, stress creates conditions in your body that make it easier for unwanted bacteria to thrive, but if you can lower your stress levels, you give beneficial bacteria more of a chance to colonize and shift the balance of your microbiome in their favor. By taking the time to walk around in nature, you signal your body to let go of stressful feelings, which in turn affects your gut via the gut-brain axis. This leads to a healthier, more diverse microbiome that helps to keep your mood stable long after your hike is over.
Gut-Friendly Tips for Healthy Hiking
Looking for suggestions for making the most of your time in the great outdoors? One of the best things about hiking is that it's pretty simple to get up and going—you just find a trail, prepare a few basics, and you’re quickly on your way.
But, there are some super easy things you can do to make your hike is that much healthier for your entire body, especially your microbiome:
• Get comfortable with the grime. If you're new to the whole hiking thing, it can be tempting to break out the wipes at the first sign of dirt, but this is really doing yourself (and your overall health) a disservice. Spending time in the outdoors is meant to be a little messy, so enjoy it––and know that by letting yourself get back to nature, you're also giving some really helpful bacteria a chance to become a part of your microbiome.
• Nourish yourself along the way. Many so-called healthy snacks are actually quite the opposite, so make sure you're bringing organic, truly nourishing gut-friendly foods like apples, pistachios, hummus, and olives. Or, if you're looking for a convenient alternative to granola bars (many of which are way high in sugar), throw a prebiotic food bar in your bag. Full of the specific fibers that nourish your bacterial good guys, they're a filling, healthy option for keeping your energy up on the trail. And, don't forget a water bottle! Hydration is not only key for keeping your muscles moving and helping you avoid getting overheated (especially important in hot weather and when hiking at a high elevation), it's also crucial for maintaining the mucosal barrier that lines your intestines and provides a "landing pad" for bacteria.10
• Be mindful of what you're putting on your body. The bacteria on your skin are in close communication with those in your gut, and your skin is a porous, living material that has a direct connection to your bloodstream—so it's important to choose products that aren't going to devastate your bacterial populations. Look for natural products that are made with safer ingredients—like mineral-based sunscreens and bug-repelling essential oils like thyme, lavender, or citronella oil—and only use as much as you need. Also, consider alternative options for protecting yourself from the sun and insects, like hats and clothing with long sleeves. Sometimes something as simple as a baseball cap and a long-sleeved, lightweight shirt really can keep you just as protected as a chemical-laden product.11,12
• Power up with probiotics. Don’t forget to double down on your gut-friendly efforts by supporting your microbial populations with a premium probiotic like PRO-15. Having a healthy gut is not only critical for maintaining your bone and joint health and endurance; it can also help you sustain the energy you need to go the distance on long hikes, as beneficial bacteria play a key role in supporting your energy levels.
3 Ways to Step Up Your Hiking Game
Need some more inspiration to lace up and find your zen on the trail? Or, are you an experienced hiker who is searching for more of a challenge? Try combining hiking with these fun tried-and-true wellness boosters that will take your hiking experience to the next level:
1. Overnight Camping. If you’re up for spending a little extra time outdoors, try combining overnight camping with day hikes—not only will camping allow you to extend your hiking trip to a multi-day adventure, but you may even be able to reset your sleep cycles in a way that makes you feel on top of the world and benefits your gut microbiome. One study found that simply camping for a couple of nights can shift your internal clock back to a time that's more in tune with nature's cycles, and since your sleep cycles affect the health of your gut microbiome and vice versa, there's really nothing to lose (and a lot to gain!) by spending a few nights in the wild.13
2. Forest Bathing. Love the idea of hiking for exercise, but want to incorporate some lower-impact, mindful activities into your hike as well? Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, could be the perfect fit. Popular in Japan for decades, it consists of spending time mindfully soaking up the natural atmosphere of the forest. It sounds simple, but multiple studies have shown that it has some seriously good effects on your health, including helping you maintain your immune function and optimizing your metabolism.14,15 So, next time you’re on the trail, keep your eyes open for the perfect forest bathing spot for your mid-hike mindfulness break.
3. Hiking Yoga. If you want to combine the best of both worlds, give hiking yoga a try! All the benefits of hitting the mat, plus the extra goodness of being outside––what's not to love? You can start out simple, by just doing a couple of poses as you take rest breaks along the trail, or try incorporating the environment around you into your practice. If you regularly use yoga blocks, see what you can do with stumps or fallen logs, or let the sounds of nature around you give you an extra challenge when it comes to concentrating on your breath.
Whether you're just going for a short day hike to restore your peace of mind or you're trekking to your heart's content, your gut is your best hiking buddy, so make sure you're giving it the support it needs, and it will more than return the favor. Now go forth and enjoy the great outdoors with a marvelous walk in nature—your mind, body, and spirit will reap the rewards all year long!
1. Voloshina, A. S., Kuo, A. D., Daley, M. A., Ferris, D. P. (2013). Biomechanics and energetics of walking on uneven terrain. NCBI, 216(21), 3963–3970. doi: 10.1242/jeb.081711
2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2003). The Seventh Report on the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure.
3. Chan, K. M., Anderson, M., Lau, E. M. C. (2003) Exercise interventions: defusing the world’s osteoporosis time bomb. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 81, 827-830.
4. Gould van Praag, C.G., Garfinkel, S.N., Sparasci, O. . . . Critchley, H.D. (2017). Mind-wandering and Alterations to Default Mode Network Connectivity When Listening to Naturalistic Versus Artificial Sounds. Scientific Reports 7(45273). doi:10.1038/srep45273
5. Magnus, K., Matroos, A., Strackee, J. (1979). Walking, Cycling, or Gardening, With or Without Seasonal Interruption, In Relation to Acute Coronary Events. American Journal of Epidemiology 110(6). doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a112853
6. Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS 201510459. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112
7. Bratman, G. N., Daily G. C., Levy, B. J., Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning 138, 41-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005
8. Campbell, S. C., Wisniewski, P. J., Noji, M., Mcguinness, L. R., Häggblom, M. M., Lightfoot, S. A., . . . Kerkhof, L. J. (2016). The Effect of Diet and Exercise on Intestinal Integrity and Microbial Diversity in Mice. PLOS ONE, 11(3).
9. Clarke, S. F., Murphy, E. F., O'sullivan, O., Lucey, A. J., Humphreys, M., Hogan, A., . . . Cotter, P. D. (2014). Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity. Gut, 63(12), 1913-1920.
10. Useros, N. R., Gheorghe, A., Labajos, R. S., Rebato, E. N., Sanchez, A. M. (2015). HYDRAGUT study: Influence of HYDRAtion status on the GUT microbiota and their impact on the immune system. The Faseb Journal, 593.1, 29(1).
11. Pennisi, E. 2008. Bacteria Are Picky About Their Homes on Human Skin. Science 320(5879). doi: 10.1126/science.320.5879.1001
12. Kim, S., Choi, K. 2014. Occurrences, Toxicities, and Ecological Risks of benzophenone-3, a Common Component of Organic Sunscreen Products: A Mini-Review. Environment International 70. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2014.05.015
13. Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle Wright Jr., K. P., McHill, A. W., Birks, B. R., Griffin, B. R., Rusterholz, T., Chinoy, E. D. (2013). Current Biology, 23(16), 1554–1558. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039
14. Li, Q. Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H. . . . Kawada, T. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 20(2), doi: 10.1177/03946320070200S202
15. Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Kumeda, S., Ochiai, T., Miura, T. (2016). Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2016(2587381). doi: 10.1155/2016/2587381.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.