Hiking is a great way to have fun while keeping fit. Hiking is excellent for muscle fitness, aerobic exercise, weight loss, and the reduction of high blood pressure. The chart at the right shows some of the fitness benefits to be gained with regular participation. Let’s take it a step further….
Hiking Fitness can be broken down into these components:
Strengthened Leg Muscles: Regular hiking does wonders for these muscles, since you are lifting both your own weight and that of anything you’re carrying every time you climb a hill.
Low-intensity, long-term endurance: hiking does not place a demand on you like running or swimming. On level ground there is a fairly constant, low demand which may be called for over a period of several hours. You may experience a slightly elevated pulse rate while your deeper breathing may still be quite relaxed. However, both pulse and breathing rates increase considerably when climbing, and this is where you will notice a higher demand on your body as well as greater health benefits through regular practice.
Tolerance of altitude: Coastal folks who consider themselves fit may be shocked at the effect of the altitude. Hiking to the top of the Mt. Humphrey may have quite a devastating effect on genuinely fit people. This is because the body requires more red blood cells to absorb the required amount of oxygen from the less dense air.
Tolerance of discomfort: most physically demanding sporting activities result in some discomfort, but hiking and backpacking can produce higher levels mainly as a result of the backpack itself. Experience shows that it takes about 5 hikes for people new to backpacking to get used to bruised hips, bruised shoulders and a sore neck caused by carrying a heavy pack for long periods of time. Add to this the effect of intense summer heat and sometimes a shortage of water, and you can better understand the need for physical and mental endurance!
Ability to concentrate for long periods of time: if you take your eyes off the path ahead of you for more than a second or two at a time, you may stumble and possibly even fall. When hiking in especially scenic areas, this may be difficult. Lack of concentration may also be an indication of fatigue, and even fit hikers may start dragging their feet and stumbling when they become mentally tired.
Coordination and agility: you don’t need the agility of a gymnast, but sure-footedness, good balance and confidence on tricky terrain are advantages. This also gives you greater independence, since you won’t need to rely on others to help you cross a stream or negotiate a tricky section on the route. Practice boulder hopping without a backpack if you feel inadequate in this area. A head for heights is not essential to begin with – this will develop on its own and is more a state of mind than anything physical!
Mental fortitude: like any endurance athlete, hiking can require a mindset which pushes you past what you might consider the limit of your physical endurance, where accomplishing your goal is more a matter of mind than of body. Some hikers try to avoid hikes of this nature, while others thrive on the physical and mental challenge!
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