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Peter Sheppard hiking in Blanchisseuse

Kristen Bor, Hiking Enthusiast

In today’s world, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, stress and mental illness like depression and anxiety are now part of everyday life for all. But spending time in nature can help bring us back to the present and evoke a sense of calm and peace to our otherwise challenged, overly consumed lives.

There’s a lot of research supporting the notion that connecting with nature improves mental health and wellbeing. Whether we are taking in the spectacular glow of a sunset or gazing out at a field of wildflowers, these brief experiences of feeling “wowed” by nature can make us feel happy and less stressed.

As you chart your 2022 way forward, we hope you include Hiking as part of your Health journey. If you are not sure why, knowing some of the benefits may just be the convincing factor you need. While some of the physical benefits may be obvious – like weight loss – hiking has some surprising perks.

Hiking allows us to unplug from technology

We’ve become more reliant on technology than ever, and I don’t know about you, but in recent months my screen time has been at an all time high. While technology makes our lives a lot easier, it also comes with unintended consequences.

Living life through our phones and social media can result in anxiety and unhealthy habits, not to mention being a huge time suck. Social media apps are designed to be addictive, so it’s important to keep this in balance and unplug once in a while. What better way than hitting the trail?

Turning off your phone and going for a hike is an opportunity to live in the present moment and disconnect from the pressures that we often feel when we are scrolling.

Hiking is good for the heart

Hiking is great for cardiovascular health. Even light hiking can raise the heart rate to a moderate level which helps improve aerobic fitness and endurance. Over time, your body adjusts to new fitness levels and you can hike longer, faster, and harder without feeling as fatigued or out of breath.

Hiking can also improve markers associated with cardiovascular health like blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol. Studies have shown that going on regular moderate hikes can significantly reduce hypertension, improve glucose tolerance, and decrease ‘bad’ cholesterol levels over time.

So if cardiovascular health is a concern for you, hiking can be a great way to improve your heart health.

Hiking can increase bone density

Bone density refers to the amount of bone mineral in your bones. High bone density is important for preventing broken bones and reducing risk for osteoporosis. High impact and weight-bearing activities like hiking help to improve bone density by strengthening the bone tissue.

But in order for these activities to be effective in increasing bone density, they need to be done at a moderate to high-level. For example, the physical impact of hiking up a steep trail is more beneficial to building bone density than hiking along a flat trail.

Hiking can relieve insomnia and improve sleep

Research has shown that regular exercise can help relieve insomnia and improve sleep patterns. Scientists suggest that being outside and getting natural light can affect sleep patterns. In his book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson explains that exposure to sunlight – especially in the morning – is crucial to producing melatonin (the sleep hormone) at night. So if you need another reason to start hiking, getting a good night’s sleep is a perfect excuse.

Hiking improves balance

Crossing streams and boulder fields can give anyone anxiety. However, every time I challenge myself on that kind of terrain, I notice my balance improving, and after a few consistent hikes, I’m much better at trusting my balance. But it isn’t just practice that makes perfect here. There is actually science behind this.

As you walk along a trail, your leg and core muscles are constantly engaging and contracting to provide stability and balance over uneven terrain. As these core stabilising muscles strengthen over time, balance improves.

But it’s not just stabilising muscles that improve balance. Hiking also helps increase proprioception, which is the mind’s awareness of the position and movement of the body in relation to its surroundings. As you hike, the brain is processing every rock and root and gauging what it will take to step over obstacles. With practice, the brain becomes more adept at judging these obstacles, and as a result, balance improves.

As we get older, it’s really important to keep working on balance in order to prevent falls. Hiking is a fun way to improve balance while spending time outdoors.

Hiking in Trinidad and Tobago

There are many local hiking groups and enthusiasts, all adhering to the safety protocols of the pandemic. One such hiking enthusiast, photographer and painter extraordinaire Peter Sheppard shares, “Love hiking because it is rejuvenating for the mind, body and soul. Breathing in mountain air soothes the lungs, the rivers and falls soothes the body. Being in nature soothes the soul.”