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Latest in Health: step off the treadmill, hike into the great outdoors

Dr. James Navalta said hiking can be a diverse workout that can help improve overall health in ways indoor exercise falls short.

For many Americans, an exercise routine looks like a lot of time indoors -- treadmills, ellipticals, weights and more -- but as one researcher can attest, the benefits of taking that workout outside, especially if it’s for a hike through nature, can be more beneficial than exercise confined to gyms and homes.

Dr. James Navalta, from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), is a fellow and associate professor in the department of kinesiology and nutrition science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He joined us on “Take Care” to talk about how hiking can improve overall health.

Part of Navalta’s research focuses on the physiological responses to outdoor exercise, including hiking and trail running. Through his work and the work of others, he’s seen that outdoor exercise can have numerous benefits on one’s health.

“Heart rate decreases,” he said. “There’s evidence that blood pressure decreases, and once you add exercise, you have an increase in something called rate pressure product. Essentially what that is, it’s an indicator of how hard the heart is working, and that actually increases with exercise.”

Navalta said that hiking especially can help break up the routine created by indoor exercises like running on a treadmill.

“The treadmill kind of constrains you to the same type of movements and over, and that’s not bad in and of itself, but over time, it could open you up to some overuse type of injuries,” he said. “Hiking or trail running, anything you do outside, has a lot of variability with it, so it overcomes that repetitive muscle movement.”

Research done on the immune system, Navalta said, has shown that being outside, walking and immersing oneself in nature can help increase factors that decrease one’s risk of certain cancers. Getting out in nature can also improve lung function and the respiratory system.

And hiking isn’t just good for physical health; Navalta said it can have a positive impact on mental health as well.

“There’s an increase in sense of comfort and calm,” he said. “Anxiety levels go down. There’s even some research that has shown that people’s perception of headaches decreases as you get into nature.”           

To those who have never hiked before or haven’t in a long while, it can seem like a daunting thing to start. Navalta said that the benefits are well worth the effort, and the first hike doesn’t have to be for very far or on a difficult terrain.

“Just go ahead and start off and do it,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be where you’re hiking on two- or three-day trips.”