To many people hiking means “work”, and who likes that? I’m here to tell you, though, that while it may be work, it’s good work. Good for you. Your mind and body. Your soul. You feel better after a hike. Let me name a few reasons.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit is that hiking in nature gives you a chance to get away from the rat race, have some down time apart from the clock, the phone, from traffic, media of all sorts, the constant drumbeat of bad news etc. From people. Peace and quiet is worth its weight in gold when you need it. In nature (no, I’m not talking about the local postage-stamp-sized city park) you have time to think. Time to cool off if you’re upset about something. Time to get away from the relentless onslaught of advertising. Of inane, senseless chatter. To get perspective and realize that our individual problems don’t really amount to much on a cosmic timescale.
Walking up a grassy hillside, watching the breeze toss the blades to and fro, listening to the solitary call of a songbird, the splash of water over rocks, smelling the sweet fragrance of spring wildflowers, the blue of sky darting in and out of waving branches, the color of sunlight through leaves, its warmth on your face, well it fixes things. Makes them right. It’s healing. I don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t discovered hiking. Oh sure, I could just go to the gym, but besides the fact that I’d be missing all of the wonderful things mentioned above, the one thing I wouldn’t be missing is an abundance of Co2 – other people’s (see also this study). Yuck!
Now onto more grounded reasons.
Rediscovering the fact that we are a part of nature, not separate from it, is sort of shocking at first. Those plants don’t just have aesthetic value; we need them. Don’t believe me? Just try holding your breath for awhile and see how that works out for you. That oxygen you’re breathing? It came from plants.
I’ve found that if I haven’t been hiking in awhile, I begin to crave it. My body craves it. The exertion of climbing, the hard breathing, sucking in fresh air. The exercise. Maybe we all can’t be hyper accomplished Ray Jardines (not me at least) but you don’t have to be. Hiking doesn’t have to be a competition. That’s not what it’s about. Don’t measure your worth against what others can do. The only competitor that matters is yourself.
Legend has it that there is a case of a man who lived to be 256 years old (or 197 according to others) named Li Ching-Yuen. Hiking the mountains of China was evidently a big part of his life.
Another point: you may not be aware of it, but the modern human skeleton is only a shadow of our prehistoric ancestor’s. Our bones are thinner and weaker. Why is that? Scientists have tied it to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, a lifestyle change we made when we switched from foraging – searching for our food on foot – to farming (also see Ill effects of sedentary lifestyle go back to start of agriculture).
Together these results strongly implicate declining mobility as the specific behavioral factor underlying these changes. Mobility levels first declined at the onset of food production, but the transition to a more sedentary lifestyle was gradual, extending through later agricultural intensification.
I’m no doctor, and as always, you should consult one if you are out of shape and considering a big lifestyle change, but I have a hunch about senility in older people. I think that sedentariness may have something to do with it. As people get older and less active their hearts actually shrink (conversely, exercising makes it grow larger). So I imagine that as the heart grows weaker it can’t quite pump blood uphill to all the tiny capillaries at the outer reaches in a brain as easily as someone whose heart is pumping from exercise (and whose heart tends to pump more efficiently, even when at rest.) And at rest it doesn’t have to work as hard either. You know what they say, use it or lose it. So perhaps there’s an exercise component to Alzheimer’s.
All in all, there are a lot of good reasons to “go take a hike”.