Is Hiking Good Exercise for Weight Loss?
People hike for any number of reasons, it’s an excellent form of exercise to keep your body healthy. Hiking is also a popular way to explore new areas and see different natural environments. However, with new year’s resolutions just around the corner, a lot of people might be considering hiking as a way to lose weight. Hitting the trails is a real workout, it improves your cardiovascular performance, stamina, and strengthens your muscles.
The great thing about hiking is that it’s completely free, it won’t cost you a thing to go outdoors and enjoy a walk. Walking isn’t quite the same as hiking however, as trails provide more challenging and uneven terrain, making the hiker work harder. Hiking is about enjoyment for most people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be great for your physical health. When it comes to weight loss, calories are a commonly discussed element. Although the number of calories you burn while hiking affects any possible weight loss, increasing your muscle tone and stamina is also a great technique for losing weight long-term.
Many people hit the gym when trying to shed a few pounds, but this can be monotonous and difficult to maintain. It can be easy to forget that you don’t need a fancy gym membership or expensive workout gear or a new iPod for your tunes; the outdoors is an endless source of both good exercise and entertainment. Hikers can have a much more enjoyable time on the trails than being trapped in a sweaty and smelly gym room.
Burning calories: how it works
When it comes to weight loss, it’s a simple equation. In order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. But what does that really mean? Calories are the unit of energy we use to measure any form of food, to measure the energy we gain from carbs, protein, and fat. Any surplus calories, energy not expended maintaining your basic bodily functions such as breathing and digestion, are stored in your body as protein, carbs, and fat.
Calories stored as protein become muscle, so your body rarely burns these as muscle is useful. Generally, your body will burn stored carbs and fat when you workout. This is how weight loss occurs; creating a calorie deficit so that your body burns stored energy. Different forms of exercise burn different types of energy, depending on the intensity of your workout.
Low v.s. high-intensity workouts
Hiking is considered a low-intensity workout, so the calories you burn while hiking is mostly from fat. This makes hiking a great exercise for weight loss, as fat-burning is exactly what we’re after. If you exercise in a fasted state, with nothing in your stomach, for example before breakfast, then you’ll burn more calories from fat. However, this will make your exercise more tiring and you’ll probably burn fewer calories overall. You should never hike or do any form of exercise on an empty stomach, it’s risky and not healthy at all. Low-intensity workouts burn a greater proportion of calories from fat compared to from any other source, however, high-intensity means burning more calories overall.
If you partake in a high-intensity workout, such as an uphill sprint, then your body will burn the most easily accessible calories it has. This means your energy doesn’t only come from fat but from any resource including carbs and even muscle. The difference with high-intensity is, your body will continue to burn extra calories long after you finish. A significant amount of energy is consumed repairing muscles and replacing carbs, burning more calories from fat. So, what’s the ideal approach for weight loss?
Burning calories: When hiking for weight loss
A mix of high and low-intensity workouts is the best approach if your aim is to lose weight. High-intensity spurts will get your heart pumping, and give your body a kick to start burning up some energy. Meanwhile, lower-intensity intervals give your body a break and keep that fat burning to shed those pounds.
If you were to push the HIT (high-intensity training) too much, then your body won’t burn fat as efficiently. Keeping your heart rate so elevated will keep your cortisol (stress hormone) levels high, which can lead to fat retention and muscle breakdown. This is the opposite of what we want when hiking for weight loss. It’s best to keep your workouts low-intensity for the most part, adding high energy spurts to keep your heart pumping.
One reason why hiking is a great exercise for weight loss is that it can never just be low-intensity. Unlike when you’re walking on a treadmill, hiking on the trails means uneven terrain. Even if it’s still mostly flat, the extra effort you’ll put into balance and maintaining your speed will elevate your heart rate and increase the intensity of your hike. The addition of a heavy pack also increases the calories you burn significantly, as carrying more weight definitely expends more energy.
It’s easy to turn a low-intensity hike into a high-intensity workout; all you need to do is sprinkle in a few activities to get your heart pumping. Here are a few easy adjustments you can make to burn more calories and lose more weight while you’re hiking:
- Running uphill: When you get to the bottom of an incline, instead of settling in to slowly work your way up, run to the top as fast as you can. By going all-out for just a few moments, you’ll increase your heart rate and really get your blood pumping. Not only will you burn more calories in the few minutes you’re running uphill, but this will increase the calories you continue to burn for the next hour or two.
- Add some pushups: Stop, drop, and give me 25. Take a 5-minute break on a quiet part of the trail to do some pushups. This will turn your hike into a full-body workout while amping up the number of calories you burn.
- Walk downhill slowly: Remember this simple rule: faster uphill, slower downhill. If you descend more slowly than usual, the muscles your body uses to slow down are worked harder. So, take your time on the descents, and burn more calories and fat!
- Use trekking poles: Making use of hiking poles means your whole body has to work out on your hike, instead of just your legs. Read more about how to use hiking poles and find out how they can increase the number of calories you burn to such an extent.
- Increase your pack weight: The more you carry, the more energy you expend and the more calories you burn. An easy method is to carry more water: add a gallon to your pack and that 8 extra pounds of weight you’ll need to carry around the trail.
All these small changes to your regular hike can increase the number of calories you burn hugely, making your body work much harder and therefore burn more fat. Next, we’ll explain how to calculate your calorie deficit so you fully understand your hiking workouts.
Calculating your calories
If you want to accurately track the number of calories you burn while hiking, you could try out one of the best hiking watches. Sports watches with built-in heart rate monitors can accurately calculate the number of calories you burn and will keep you updated along the trails. However, you don’t need fancy technology to work it out. Firstly, you can use the Mayo Clinic’s calorie calculator to figure out the number of daily calories you need to maintain your weight. This is the base number of calories you burn on a regular day. To figure this out, you just need your age, height, and current weight.
You can use another online tool like this one to calculate the calories you burn while hiking. This calculator also asks for the weight of your pack (as we mentioned this can make a huge difference), the mileage and duration of your hike, and the type of terrain. This particular calorie calculator asks for the average incline of your hike (as steeper hills burn more calories) as well as the general terrain.
If we use the example of a 60-minute 3-mile hike, including uphill and downhill terrain on a moderate incline, a 200-pound hiker would burn 650 calories. Add a pack weight of just 5kg, and the calories burnt increases to 1470. Remember, this figure is an estimate of the total amount of calories you might burn in this time, including the ones you burn completing basic bodily functions.
You can use these tools to calculate your calorie deficit, so you know how many more calories you burn than consume. However, burning calories isn’t the only way that hiking can help you lose weight. Any form of exercise will increase your body’s health and strength, meaning your body is more efficient at burning calories in the long run.
Building up strength
Taking up hiking as a regular form of exercise helps you to burn fat without a doubt, but it also increases your muscle tone. Building up strength and muscle increases your metabolism, which is the base rate at which your body burns calories. Muscle burns a lot more calories than fat, so when you build up your muscles by hiking regularly, then you’ll burn more calories and fat in the long run.
If you’re working hard on the trails and don’t see the scale moving, don’t worry. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you could be shedding pounds and building muscle at the same time. Don’t get us wrong, a pound is a pound, no matter if it’s muscle or fat, but muscle is much denser, it takes up about 4/5ths of the space. Muscle tissue burns about 6 calories a day per pound, whereas fat is only 2-3. If you increase your muscle, it might not lower your weight straight away, but it will mean less fat on your body. To calculate your body fat percentage, the ratio of muscle to fat on your person, you can use an online calculator.
The best way to build muscle on the trails is to challenge yourself with a variety of terrains. When climbing both up and downhill, your leg muscles including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves are put through a serious workout, especially when descending. Gravity forces your muscles to work harder naturally, maximizing your muscle tone. This is a similar workout to lifting weights at the gym, and you get to do it all for free while enjoying gorgeous views as well. Hiking is generally a lower-body workout, but if you use trekking poles to spread the load, you’ll build arm and shoulder muscle too.
As we’ve explained, building muscle will increase the number of calories you burn daily, no matter what you’re up to. If you work on your muscle tone out on the trails, then the fat will burn more efficiently even when sitting behind your desk. Hiking to increase your muscle tone isn’t an instant way to lose weight, but it’s much better to keep the pounds off in the long run.
Any sort of exercise, especially one as varied as hiking, will increase your overall stamina and endurance. For example, any time you spend hiking over 4000 feet (if you’re tackling a mountain peak) helps your body adapt to functioning with less oxygen. This helps increase your endurance so next time you can hit the trails for longer. Any time spent exercising at a high elevation is great for improving your energy levels.
Hikers who spend time at higher altitudes take longer to fatigue, but doing any form of exercise increases your stamina for next time. The more you hike, the more muscle you’ll build and the more calories you’ll burn overall. Increasing your general stamina can also improve your energy levels overall, helping you to be more efficient and shed more pounds day-to-day.
Good for mental health
So we’ve established hiking is a great form of exercise, so beneficial to your physical health. However, did you know that hiking is also great for your mental health? Studies show that spending some time outdoors in nature is great for keeping your mind healthy too. Spending time exercising outside will help make you feel happier in day to day life, and let’s be honest; hiking is so much more fun than spending time in the gym.
Hiking is such a great exercise for weight loss because it takes place outside; when enjoying the natural environment, a hiker might forget that they’re doing any exercise at all. Any activity that burns calories while you enjoy yourself is a great choice in our opinion so that you can lose weight and have fun while doing it.
So, is hiking good exercise for losing weight? The answer- absolutely! Not only is hiking a great way to burn calories and shed pounds on the trails, but it’ll help you to lose more weight and be healthier in the long run too. There are a few things you can do to optimize your hiking workouts for weight loss, so just making these small changes can have a huge effect on the results.
Try to sprinkle in some high-intensity segments into your regular hike, if you reach a small hill, sprint up it to boost your heart rate. Carrying a heavier pack will both increase the calories you burn on the trail and build up more muscle to burn more fat afterward, a definite win-win situation. Remember, you should never starve yourself in an attempt to lose more weight while hiking. Your body will be much more efficient at burning calories and shedding pounds if you refuel regularly with a healthy snack, and of course, make sure to drink plenty of water.
In order to benefit from hiking as exercise, you’ll need to incorporate it into your regular schedule. An occasional hike is not enough to lose any significant amount of weight; you’ll need to hit the trails regularly in order to improve your health. Remember that when it comes to exercise, variety is key. Check out hikes with different terrains and difficulty levels to get a more all-round workout, using and building different muscles. Check out the best hikes in Pennsylvania for some inspiration. Always warm-up and stretch your muscles before a hike to prevent injuries, and cool down with a relaxing stroll towards the end of your trek.
Our final piece of advice when hiking to lose weight is don’t overdo it. If you push your body too hard, then you could cause injuries and harm your long-term weight loss goals. Remember to include recovery time in your schedule, if you don’t get enough rest then your body won’t be as efficient. If you make time for low-intensity and high-intensity exercise, combined with the proper amount of rest, then losing weight while hiking is easy. Make the most of your opportunities to see new parts of the country or the world from your hiking trail; exercise and fun were never so easily attainable.
Bonus tip: Check out this video for some more info on the calories you burn while hiking!