"When you hike, you hit your body from lots of different angles and engage muscle groups you may miss at the gym, like the back, outer thighs and deep core muscles," says Steve Silberberg, founder of Fitpacking, an outfitter in Hull, Mass., that runs backpacking trips. The variety of challenges trails offerlogs to climb over, ditches to avoid puts some on a par with the most grueling boot-camp workouts.
Exploring outdoor paths is also good for your brain. Research shows that just five minutes of exercise in a natural environment boosts your mood, which makes total sense: Lush scenery is more inspiring than a gym television permanently stuck on ESPN. A study from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas found that backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after spending four days in natural settings, disconnected from electronic devices. Away from our cell phones and tablet devices, our mind can relax, scientists say, freeing up our imagination. That means you might want to take a break from Words With Friends when you're on a hikethough certain apps can come in handy (like the ones to the right).
Anyone at any fitness level can join Mother Nature's gym. "If a person is capable of going up a flight of stairs, they can hike," says Marc Alabanza, program director for The Ranch at Live Oak in Malibu, Calif. So break out that backpack and follow these simple strategies to increase your fitnessand pleasurepayoffs.
First, find a great trail
A slew of useful websites makes it easy to pinpoint a fun local hike, or even 10 of them. On the biggiestrails.com and localhikes.com, as well as with the online tool Nature Find (visit nwf.org, the National Wildlife Federation's website)you can search locations by zip code and read detailed information, including trail length, level of difficulty, scenery you'll see along the way and hiker reviews. Or just stop by your local hiking or outdoor-activities shopyou know, the one with the ever-cheery, Patagonia-clad folks behind the counterand ask about the top trails in the area.
A word to beginners: "You can always take an easy hike and make it more challenging," says exercise physiologist and hike leader Franci Cohen of Fuel Fitness in Brooklyn, N.Y. (think varying the intensity with speed bursts). "What you can't do, though, is make a hard hike easier." In other words, don't try to tackle Machu Picchu the first time you go off-road.