The shock of transitioning from December’s freshly baked cookies and feelings of warmth to January’s cold offerings of kale and guilt is fading. Resolve for resolutions and goals set on January 1 may be fading too.
So, what were those resolutions? Improve fitness? Reduce stress? Spend more time meditating or in prayer? What if I told you that all of this, and more, can be achieved with one activity? Hiking accomplishes all of that. It’s also easy and free.
First, let’s talk about fitness benefits.
And there are many. In addition to being a great cardio workout, hiking builds strength in your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and the muscles in your hips and lower legs. It is a weight-bearing exercise, so you’ll build bone density; you’ll even improve balance and get a terrific core workout as muscles work to stabilize your body on the uneven terrain.
As with any good cardio workout, you’ll lower the risk of heart disease, improve blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and help to control weight. Burn anywhere between 400 and 700 calories per hour depending on your size and trail conditions. The bonus is that this all happens with lovely views, fresh air, and the sounds and smells of nature. It has been proven that people who exercise outdoors are more likely to stick with it.
Next up, stress relief.
While any physical activity can help to reduce stress and anxiety, there’s something about being out in nature that elevates those benefits.
First, the mood boost. “Research shows that hiking has a positive impact on combating the symptoms of stress and anxiety,” says Gregory A. Miller, Ph.D., president of the American Hiking Society. “Being in nature is ingrained in our DNA, and we sometimes forget that.”
It may seem obvious that a walk in nature can soothe your mind and soul, but science is now discovering that hiking can change your brain for the better. A recent study found that spending time in nature, unplugged from technology, not only decreased negative thoughts; it reduced mental fatigue, soothed the mind, and gave creative thinking and problem-solving a boost.
You may have noticed that I said unplugged from technology. Technology is great, but at this time in history, we are bombarded with messages designed to pull at our attention constantly. Go outside, hit the reset button, and give your brain a break. Ditch your device and immerse yourself in nature.
Finally, let’s touch on meditation and spirituality.
Hiking is a celebration of nature. Without devices and distractions, we become mindful, genuinely alive, and in the moment. Place one foot in front of the other, over and over and begin to notice your breath and bodily sensations as you become more aware of your soul’s intention to connect with something bigger than yourself,
Speaking of something bigger than yourself, climbing mountains, strolling through the desert, losing yourself in the forest, are all excellent reminders of how small we and how small our problems are in the grand scheme of things. Turn down the constant chattering of your inner monologue while putting physical distance between yourself and the hectic pace of everyday life as you enjoy the beauty and majesty that God has created for you.
Many people report feeling closer to God when they are surrounded by nature. John Muir, Sierra Club founder and “Father of our National Parks” who had a great passion for nature and adventure wrote:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
In 2016, I decided that I would hike the Grand Canyon.
To train for the task, I began hiking once a week. 52 weeks, 52 hikes. At first, all I could think about as I plodded along was how cold it was, how much further I had to go, that sort of thing.
As time went on, I fell into a natural rhythm on my treks and began quieting my mind. Once that happened I was able to engage fully with my surroundings and myself.
When I finally made it to the bottom of that vast canyon, I walked alone, late that night, to the bridge which spans the Colorado River. I laid down and gazed up at the sky which looked like ribbon curling between the massive canyon walls. Streaked purple and blue with a million stars scattered throughout it would be impossible not to feel connected to God in the midst of that grandeur. One of my favorite verses comes to mind, “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10. Nature makes a fine church.
You don’t have to go on an epic trek to reap all of these benefits.
No need to be a hero. Begin with a simple walk through a park or nature center. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably somewhere in North Alabama. Lucky you! You are surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty.
To begin, you don’t need much more than a decent pair of shoes, some water, a sense of adventure, and a trail map. Venture out as you progress. Resources are abundant online.
Spending time in nature, observing silence, and engaging in prayer will allow you to reconnect with nature, with yourself, and with God.
Martin Luther may have said it best.
“God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”
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Starting your own hiking journey? Pick up a copy of the 52 Weeks 52 Hikes Journal now available. Track your treks, and relive your adventure.
Read how my journey got started by clicking here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Originally published in Anniston/Gadsden Christian Family Magazine.