Lace ’em up! For a mental health boost, take a hike

ILLUSTRATION - Regular hiking won't just keep you fit, but is also a way to improve your mental health, research shows. Photo: Christin Klose/dpa
ILLUSTRATION - Regular hiking won't just keep you fit, but is also a way to improve your mental health, research shows. Photo: Christin Klose/dpa

(dpa) – There’s hardly an outdoor activity requiring as little preparation as hiking. It’s a perfect way to be physically active during the pandemic without overexerting yourself.

Hiking isn’t only a pleasant diversion, it’s also beneficial to health. Regular hikes strengthen the body’s immune system, reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and lower blood sugar levels, according to Dr Tobias Erhardt, director of physiotherapy studies at the Karlsruhe campus of the SRH University of Applied Sciences for Health in Germany.

“During the active breaks specific to ‘health hiking,’ strength, agility and coordination are trained as well,” he says.

Health hiking, developed by the German Hiking Association (DWV), combines short hikes with physiotherapeutic exercises. The DWV trains guides for this, who also provide tips to participants on how to relax and maintain a healthy lifestyle, explains Christine Merkel, head of the DWV’s department of health and marketing.

For a study on health hiking commissioned by a German statutory health insurance company, Erhardt and 56 test persons whose average age was nearly 60 took regular hikes for 10 weeks. The study found that most participants lost body fat, and many added muscle mass. Blood pressure levels improved as well.

What’s more, 70 per cent of the participants reported an improvement in their mental state.

“[Health hiking] promotes mental regulation,” remarks Erhardt. The natural surroundings, the exercise, the sounds, smells, and the social aspect of hiking in a group – all of these things influence participants’ subjective feeling of well-being in a positive way, he says.

The DWV developed its health hiking concept for flat terrain and low mountain ranges. Many participants often found ascents difficult at first but could negotiate them better after a few weeks, Merkel says.

Sport-for-health activities should generally produce a medium level of perceived exertion. “The exertion should always be in the aerobic range,” points out Merkel. “This means you shouldn’t get out of breath, but should be able to carry on a conversation while hiking.”

If possible, it’s better to hike on natural surfaces rather than tarred ones. Varied and uneven surfaces train coordination and balance. But the choice of surface also depends on participants’ capabilities.

“If people are taking part whose gait is very unsteady, it may be better to start with asphalt or evenly gravelled surfaces,” Merkel says.

Wearing the proper footwear is extremely important. Walking shoes, with lug soles to prevent slipping, are best. For people who are somewhat unsteady on their feet, shoes that cover the ankles provide more support.

“At the same time, however, they restrict mobility of the feet,” Merkel notes. “So everyone’s got to weigh the pros and cons.”

Walking sticks can also be helpful, particularly for people with hip or knee problems. They especially provide support when hiking downhill.

Whether it’s hiking or simply going for walks, “every kind of physical activity is provably better for body and mind than no physical activity at all,” says Erhardt. But he advises people with physical or motor impairments to consult their doctor first.

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