How Hiking Transforms Us

Hiking transforms us. This statement may sound perplexing to those who hike regularly. How exactly does such a humdrum activity transform us?

Stuart Phillips, a professor in the Kinesiology Department of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and a keen Bruce Trail hiker, says that hiking can transform human health. “As we hike, we gear our bodies for physical work, which is (for most of us) a drastic change from our everyday jobs. The increased mechanical work that our heart has to do and the changed blood flows have an enormously positive impact on our health.” Phillips and his colleagues in McMaster’s Exercise Metabolism Research Group, whose laboratory includes mass spectrometers and Doppler ultrasound detectors, have found that just a small amount of moderate exercise can significantly reduce blood pressure and build muscle. Armed with insights from Phillips and other experts, I headed out on the Bruce Trail in an attempt to “prove” the validity of hiking’s transformations.

By Ned Morgan


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Illustration by Dave Barnes.


I decided to hike the Pretty River Provincial Park loop, part of the Blue Mountain Bruce Trail section. This loop hike traverses the highest elevation point on the entire Bruce Trail. When I tried to drive to the beginning of this loop, I became disoriented by what seemed to be an error in my road map showing two county roads of the same number (19) running parallel. Unable to find my trailhead, I eventually became frustrated and drove home. When I returned the next day with my father, Jack, he easily sorted out my navigational difficulties and found the trailhead. Suddenly I recognized my surroundings and remembered that I’d been here before, several years ago. Was I harboring too much Apo E4?

“The evidence is mounting that moderate cardiovascular exercise such as hiking can increase energy, slow the aging process, and improve overall cognitive function.”

Apo E4 (apolipoprotein E, variant 4) is a gene associated with memory loss. Recent studies suggest that Apo E4 may interact in the brain with beta-amyloids, plaque-like substances that clog neurons and may cause memory loss or disorientation. The good news is that merely possessing the Apo E4 gene does not mean symptoms will appear; and moderate exercise is proven to reduce Apo E4 levels.

Can hiking sharpen your mind? Research not only supports this claim but suggests that exercise can even grow your brain. A recently identified protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) develops nerves associated with learning and memory in infants. As we age, BDNF levels tend to decrease. But the evidence is mounting that cardiovascular exercise such as hiking, by increasing BDNF levels, can boost energy, slow the aging process, and improve overall cognitive function. Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, writes: “even moderate exercise will supercharge mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen thinking, enhance memory, and much more.” Boosting BDNF through exercise, Ratey continues, “encourages nerve cells to bind, which is the cellular basis for logging new information.”

As the trail entered the Petun Conservation Area and we passed the rim of Osler Bluff, we began to descend the boulder-strewn Escarpment edge, overshadowed by old cedars and beech. I kept one eye on my father as we approached a muddy descent. “Careful here, Dad,” I said, just before I slipped and fell. As my father helped me up, I remembered what another professor in McMaster’s Kinesiology Department, Steven Bray, told me: “Hiking may also help older adults preserve balance, which is protective against falls and fall-related injuries.”


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Photo: Ned Morgan


After hiking for about half an hour, I found both my physical state and my mood transformed for the better. Why? By stimulating the cardiovascular system, aerobic activity such as hiking delivers hormones via the bloodstream to our cells to optimize our metabolic activities. Hiking also jumpstarts our nervous system, which sends out messenger molecules known as neurotransmitters. One such neurotransmitter, serotonin, has an extremely positive impact on our mood. The billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry offers a growing number of antidepressant drugs to provide more serotonin to the brain’s neurons but exercise also boosts it – prescription-free.

The experts I spoke to and my research focused on physical transformations. But after our hike I realized that hiking can transform both body and mind. McMaster’s Steven Bray reminded me of the World Health Organization’s definition of health: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Bray continued, “what sets hiking apart from more mundane activities is that it offers many benefits that can raise one to a better level of health (according to the WHO definition) rather than just help one avoid disease and malfunction.”

Maybe this is why many of us choose the trail over the gym. Steven Bray: “To me there would be no contest between a hike, or riding a stationary bike. The evidence suggests that either is good, but I’m pretty sure what my preference would be.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bruce Trail Magazine.


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