Dossier: Hiking

The benefits of Nordic walking, hiking & co.

Good for your mind and body, inexpensive and ideal for young and old: Human movement scientist Elmar Anliker explains why walking, Nordic walking and hiking in the fresh air are beneficial for your health.

Text: Simone Liedtke; photo: iStock

Three years have passed since Switzerland found itself in a corona-induced lockdown. Many people felt drawn to recreational areas to escape the confines of their own four walls. The forest became a social hotspot: hoards of joggers and Nordic walkers squeezed past walkers and large families gathered at picnic areas and green spaces. Even the hiking routes were swarming with people.  They were making the most of the positive psychosocial effects of exercising outdoors.

What effect does exercising in the fresh air have on your health?

“Walking, Nordic walking and hiking are three sports that everyone can do as there are no special requirements, which is why they are invaluable for our health”, explains human movement scientist Elmar Anliker. Regular exercise has many benefits: increased stamina, a more robust immune system, blood vessels become more elastic, and lung volume and respiration improve.

“Exercise can also lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of being diagnosed with diabetes, improve bone metabolism and encourage a healthy energy balance by reducing fat and building muscle.” But to do so, you need to challenge your body a little. “It’s important to achieve a certain training effect, which means you have to increase the intensity, as otherwise it’s not enough of a challenge”, says Anliker.

Nordic walking or hiking for stronger muscles

For once the journey isn’t the goal, but rather the goal dictates the journey. Are you looking to improve your physical fitness or is it more about your mental well-being, for example as a good way of winding down after a hectic day? Elmar Anliker explains: “Leisurely exercise isn’t training.”

The same goes for the 10,000 steps that we constantly hear are the benchmark for daily fitness. “10,000 leisurely steps are, for example, less effective than 5,000 steps at a higher intensity” says the expert, adding: “Shorter bursts of activity at a moderate intensity are often more beneficial for your health than a longer walk, because the growth process is determined by the intensity of the movement.” You have to feel your muscles in order for them to grow. In others words, no pain – no gain. 

Get fitter

As a rule of thumb, moderate intensity means you’re sweating a little and slightly out of breath but still able to hold a conversation. This level of intensity is easy to achieve with Nordic walking, hiking uphill or walking quickly.

Burn fat

Anliker recommends low-intensity aerobic exercise for anyone looking to burn fat. “Walking in particular doesn’t push us to our physical limit, which means we can keep going for longer. The energy for this stems from fat burning, of which we have a large supply in our bodies.” 

Walking to get you started

Walking is ideal for people who aren’t using to doing sports or beginners. “You have to start off slowly if you’ve been a couch potato for a while, because the musculoskeletal system needs to get accustomed to the strain. Walking is the perfect way to start exercising and can also help build muscle and improve your fitness if you’re a novice.”

Build muscle – gentle on the joints

Training is designed to slow the natural deterioration of the body that begins at 30. This makes it possible for an 80-year-old to feel 60 or even younger. The foundation for every physical activity is muscle mass. This provides the power required to move and protects your joints. Which is why Anliker recommends doing strength training twice a week to preserve muscle mass for physical activity such as hiking, which can place stress on the joints. You can do so using body weight only or with light weights or resistance bands. Sticks can also help when hiking to better distribute the load on the knees when going downhill.

The interviewee

Elmar Anliker is a sports/human movement scientist and owner and managing director of ANLIKER BEWEGT AG in Lucerne.