We know cardio workouts in a gym improve heart health.
How about hiking?
My father recently suffered a mild heart attack. It was later learned that his heart had nearly clogged arteries that could have been prevented with a more fiberous diet, and brisk exercise the years leading up to it.
The good news, we discovered it is not too late. Even people with heart event problems can gradually increase their exercise levels, if done right, after recovery.
Your fitness workouts should be moderately-intense exercise. Hiking, almost always, fits this bill.
The key to improved heart strength:
Brisk exercise. Not sprint training, and not slow trodding. But exercise that pushes the heart rate up to an optimal level for moderate periods every day.
Brisk aerobic exercise helps in weight loss and can improve cardiovascular health, while potentially reducing the risk of heart attacks, if stepped up gradually.
Hiking has always been suspected of being a good option for some people, to improve their heart. But more research is revealing that brisk hiking on varied terrain may be the IDEAL form of exercise for cardio heart strength training. There are several factors that may lead to this:
- The changing and varying surface of hiking, as opposed to flat surface walking, works certain muscles that are only used for that terrain
- Hiking typically has higher inclines, leading to increased energy expenditure compared with a treadmill or flat surface walking
- An average hike can be longer than a typical cardio gym workout (the primary factor may be simply the interest and "fun factor" that is not found on treadmills)
- Natural responses from the body, adapt to a hike better than a gym workout, which may prevent over-exhaustion
Regular hiking, once or twice a week leads to increased core cardio. 1
The "side benefits of improved balance skills and inner muscles, derived from uneven surfaces" give hikers a more challenging workout, without even noticing it! 1
A study published by the National Institute of Health in the Journal of Experimental Biology showed that changes in terrain causes overall net metabolic energy expenditure to increase. Hikers immediately benefit from a varying terrain, including rocks, dips, small jumps, hills, sand, etc. that other fitness forms simply can't offer.
Uneven terrain might also require more mechanical work from the legs, independent of the effect on step parameters. 2
The term in sports medicine is called "Push off". Push off, which is your body's extra energy exertion from compensating for dips and steps of non-consistent heights, leads to faster and greater calorie burn. This effect can even be increased from tools like trekking poles.
Your heart starts to pump faster . . . the right way.
Overview of the simple benefits of hiking:
- Reduce risk of chronic disease 5
- Up to 30% lower risk of developing heart disease 6
- Improve balance and muscle coordination
- Lose weight
- Boost to energy levels and self-esteem
- Improved brain function 6
- More fun the stationary cardio workouts
According to these same studies, "steady walking on flat even ground requires zero work from your body's negative motion muscles on average." Yet uneven surfaces cause muscles to constantly speed and slow you down.
"Our findings highlight that rather small changes in terrain properties (~2.5 cm terrain height variation) can have substantial impact on muscular work distribution across the lower limb." 5
Length of a hike:
Brisk walking or hiking should be for 30 minutes a day for most people, and 60 minutes a day for people on weight-loss plans. 3
While on even surfaces, your pace should be brisk enough to cover 3 miles within 45 minutes, on uneven surfaces of hiking in nature, that may be lower to 2 miles, with nearly similar benefits.
One report revealed "At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity" is optimal for cardiovascular health improvement. A hike in a natural area, twice a week, will likely match these requirements.
Target Heart Rate
Target Heart rate is the heart rate range you will benefit most from during exercise. If it is too high, you may be over-training which will damage yourself. If it is too little, your workouts will not benefit you. 4
Calculate: Find your maximum heart rate -- the fastest your heart should beat during activity. The simplest method: You can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. A 50-year-old would subtract 50 from 220 for a maximum heart rate of 170. 5
Ideally, moderate exercise, should lead your target heart rate to 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. If it is vigorous exercise, it should be no more than 70-85% of your maximum. 4
Your heart rate will be higher for higher altitudes. This is natural, as your heart is working harder to process thinner air.
Choice of trails
Consider natural trails in either forest service areas, or large county parks. These paths are typically unpaved, and have the varying terrain needed for your added muscle use. If you can choose trails with an average 5% grade or better, you'll benefit more from the incline.
For a typical 1-mile hike, look for trails with elevation gains one-way of 300 vertical feet or more. Ideal trails will lead to nearly 1000 ft of elevation gain.
"What if I live in a flat area?"
While you may miss out on the benefits of elevation gain, you can still choose natural trails with unpaved paths. The combination of soft and hard ground, with rocks and obstacles not found on paved even surfaces, will give you some of the benefits of negative muscle work, higher calorie burn and heart work, all for the same distance.
Trails on the outskirts of your city, or in large nature areas will offer these.
Consider hiking apps like AllTrails, which give you the conditions and elevations of many top trails, with downloadable maps.
Overall, hiking is no longer a secret for heart improvement. Now we have more reason to hit the trails and experience natural beauty . . . knowing that the premium health benefits give more motivation and drive to make it a lifestyle.
- Mike Cutler is a trail blogger, camp products tester and avid outdoors enthusiast. He is a top AllTrails guide producer, and his posts, photography and international highlights can be found throughout social media. His passion is the research of the benefits of hiking and trekking in global locations throughout the world, and how it benefits modern urban society. His wife and him reside in Reno, Nevada near California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, which they call their home "base camp."
J Exp Biol. 2013 Nov 1; 216(21): 3963–3970.
Biomechanics and energetics of walking on uneven terrain
- https://www.livestrong.com/article/533515-does-brisk-walking-increase-my-heart-rate/ Does Brisk Walking Increase My Heart Rate? KAREN HELLESVIG-GASKELL
- https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/heart/can-walking-really-help-your-heart/ Andrew Weil, M.D.