How hiking can make you mentally and physically stronger

Serendipitously, her last name is Bliss.

Perhaps that’s not such a coincidence when you realize the immense joy Lauralee Bliss has discovered during her 10,000 miles of hiking. She’s traversed some of the most beautiful, secluded parts of this country, trekking the entire Appalachian Trail two times. Bliss has also completely tackled the Colorado and Florida Trails, among other walking adventures.

From her time in the wilderness, Bliss says if you’re seeking serenity, you might want to literally take a hike.

She spoke to Changing America about how hiking can improve your physical and mental well-being. As naturalist John Muir expressed, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

“Nature is the healing remedy we need in life,” says Bliss, who is now traveling across the country talking to the public to spread this message. “And not just watching birds at a feeder — which I love to do, by the way — or mowing your lawn or gardening. All are beneficial. But nothing can compare to a long distance hike in the woods where you immerse yourself in that nature.”

Bliss adds that a number of studies have shown the healing power of nature, including elevating your heart rate and mood. She also cites groups such as the Wounded Warriors Project, which utilize trail hiking as therapy.

“Not only are there benefits of stress relief by escaping the office or the home, but there is substantial evidence of overall health benefits of a good long hike,” says Bliss. “The act of hiking over varying terrain uses muscles in different ways not associated with simply walking around the neighborhood. There is something about separating oneself for a time from the man-made parts of society into the wilds of nature that does something to your inner spirit. I believe the human heart yearns for it.”

Andrew Sporrer with the Virginia State Parks at Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation agrees.

“As a former wilderness therapy guide, I’ve seen firsthand the benefit to extended exposure to the outdoors. Extended wilderness exposure can help reset our circadian rhythm (sleep cycle), greatly reduce our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, and force us to reconnect with our inner selves to address our most basic needs,” he says.

Sporrer says the medical community is also paying more attention to how hiking can improve our health.

“A handful of medical practitioners have caught on to the health benefits and banded together in initiatives like ParksRx and started prescribing time outdoors as a treatment regime for certain ailments,” Sporrer said.

“Besides the great health benefits that hiking provides, it’s also just plain fun. Personally, some of my favorite memories are from the trails, and it’s important that we be good stewards for future generations to enjoy them in the same condition — or better — than we’ve been privileged to experience. Our shared spaces are finite, and it’s critical that we preserve them,” he added.

The importance of being good trail stewards is why Friends of Pocahontas State Park (FoPSP) in Virginia was formed. Made up of dedicated volunteers, the group partners with park staff, devoting endless hours to maintain more than 100 miles of trails in the park. It’s all an effort “to make sure there are always safe and fun trails ready to be used by park guests,” says a spokesperson for FoPSP.

From removing fallen trees and unsafe roots to numerous other tasks, the hardworking volunteers are made up of those who regularly use the trails.

“Whether they are hikers, bikers, or equestrians, our trail users work together to make using all of our trails a safer and more enjoyable experience,” says FoPSP.

For those who may not want to hike solo, there are many long distance hiking groups emerging as people seek solace in nature and want a hiking buddy for safety and conversation. One such group is the James River Hikers based in the Richmond, Va., area.

“There are numerous articles by psychologists and others describing the physical, psychological, and even spiritual benefits of hiking in the woods, and better yet, by waterways,” Founder Dennis Bussey said. “We James River Hikers didn’t need to read those articles because we routinely experience those benefits and more, including the camaraderie of hiking with friends.”

Bliss agrees: “The human spirit I encounter on the trail — the hiking family or ‘tramily’, as we sometimes say — we would never meet any other way in life, but the trail unites us. No one cares about their race, socio-economic status, line of work, political affiliation, religion, or other ideology. We are one out here by way of a trail. Kindness prevails, and it is much more prevalent than it would seem, seeing the news these days.”

Just as the path of life can be filled with uncertainty, ups and downs, with a mix of challenges and joys, being on the trail can often be a similar journey.

“It has also put me in vulnerable situations where I cannot control the weather or the terrain or other things out there — and that sense of vulnerability allows me to better focus on the Creator, ” says Bliss. “I realize it becomes truly a hike of faith rather than just a simple walk in the woods.”

On the trail, Bliss says, “You find out what you’re made of.”