Why work out in a fitness center when you can get a great cardio workout while exploring the beauty of the Sonoran Desert? Of all the opportunities for outdoor exercise in the Tucson area, hiking may be the most versatile—and one of the most beneficial. It’s free, can be adjusted to your fitness level, and has a surprising variety of health benefits.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that residents at Splendido, an all-inclusive community in Oro Valley for those 55 and better, have formed their own hiking club, which hits the trails twice a month September through May. Many residents at Splendido enjoy exercising, both in the community’s fitness center and through a variety of outdoor activities, so a hiking club was a natural addition.
Led by Splendido’s Get Fit coordinator Todd Lutz, the group rotates among a variety of nearby trails with different levels of difficulty. “We typically hike about three miles unless there’s really tough terrain,” says Splendido resident Curt Stowell. “Some are pretty hilly. We’re out for anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours.” Karen Jonaitis, another resident and hiker, agrees that the hikes can be physically demanding. “Todd keeps us going at a good steady pace, but we take breaks for water or to catch our breath,” she says. Challenging hikes like these provide a multitude of benefits for your body, brain, and mood:
A Walking Workout
Hiking—even on flat land—will exercise muscles including your quadriceps, hamstrings, lower leg and hip muscles. Hiking on an unpaved, slightly uneven trail will also engage the core muscles in your torso. Like any other cardio workout, hiking is good for your cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as sleep quality and weight loss. (A brisk hike can burn up to 550 calories per hour.) And because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it also helps build bone density.
Research shows that moderate exercise such as hiking helps offset the increased risk of stroke in postmenopausal women.
Step Up to a Better Mood
Todd explains, “Walking is good for your brain, as well as your body. Through simple exercise, your body begins to release proteins and chemicals which can help lower stress levels and have positive benefits on memory.”
Another benefit of hiking is the release of endorphins in your brain. Endorphins are chemicals released in the brain that minimize any physical discomfort, blocking the feeling of pain and causing a natural “feel good” rush.
Hit the Trail, Not the Treadmill
Research shows that taking your exercise outdoors compared to working out in a gym offers unique benefits for physical, cognitive, and emotional health:
Simply being outdoors has a positive effect on your mood. Multiple studies have shown that regular exposure to “green areas” can cause our bodies to relax and let go of stress, as well as ease anxiety. One study found that people in nature had slower heart rates and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who spent time in the city.
Walking or exercising outdoors has also been proven to strengthen short-term memory. Of two groups that walked in a natural or urban setting, the nature walkers performed nearly 20% better on a brief memory test. Simply spending time in nature is also associated with improved concentration and attention spans.
Studies have linked time spent in nature with lower levels of inflammation, reduced hypertension, and even a stronger immune system.
Research comparing outdoor runners with those on treadmills found that people who run outside exert more energy than the treadmill runners; they also enjoy it more and therefore will run for longer periods of time.
Karen admits that being in nature is the main draw of the hiking club for her: “I’m not a serious hiker, but I love the outdoors,” she says. “I especially love the wildflowers.”
Lace Up Your Hiking Boots
If you’re a hiker, try stepping up the difficulty or length of your hikes to reap more health benefits from them. And if you’ve never hiked, give it a try! Start slow and easy, be safe, and go with other people. . . and you may find a new passion, just as the Splendido hikers have.
“We’re very blessed that we have so much good weather here,” says Curt, who bicycles with his wife four or five times a week in addition to hiking and walking regularly. “Diane and I have a hard time being gym rats. It’s just so much more pleasant to be out.”