Benefits of Hiking in the Mountains

Written by: Pard Bharaj



Time to read 10 min

Image of Pard, the Author

Author: Pard Bharaj

I am a dedicated researcher with nearly a decade of experience in investigating health best practices. 

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 


Hiking in the mountains can offer some extra health benefits, which can differ from regular walking. This article will investigate these advantages, drawing on scientific studies (please see summaries of relevant studies in references and further reading at the end of the article) and personal experiences.

The videos and images in this health blog are from my own trek in Madeira, particularly the stunning hike from Pico Rivo to Pico Areiro. The images highlight the breathtaking beauty of mountain landscapes but also underscores the impact such environments can have on our health and wellbeing.

Benefits of Hiking in the MountainS:

The following are 7 benefits of hiking in the mountains. I recommend readers to review scientific studies at the bottom of the article which have been summarised into a few lines.

1. Negative Ions and Fresh Air

One of the significant benefits of mountain hiking is the exposure to negative ions and fresh air. Scientific studies have shown that natural environments, particularly mountainous areas, are rich in negative ions. These ions are produced by waterfalls, rivers, and dense vegetation.

How Negative Ions are Produced: Negative ions are generated through natural processes such as the movement of water (e.g., waterfalls, rivers), cosmic rays, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. When water molecules collide, they can break apart, creating negatively charged ions in the air.

Interaction with the Body: Negative ions interact with the body by entering through the respiratory system. Once inhaled, they reach the bloodstream and increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep, and stress. This interaction leads to improved mood, reduced stress, and increased energy levels. Additionally, negative ions can help purify the air by attaching to pollutants and allergens, causing them to fall to the ground, which contributes to the overall health benefits of breathing fresh mountain air.

benefits of hiking in the mountains. Me on the pico arieiro to pico ruivo trail

2. Mindfulness and Presence:

The awe-inspiring views of mountains naturally encourage mindfulness and being present in the moment. Breathtaking scenery, (towering peaks, waterfalls, and lakes), can really engage the senses and draws one's attention to the present experience. This immersion in nature promotes a state of mindfulness, where worries and distractions fade. Personally, I've found that the scenic viewpoints along the Pico Rivo to Pico Arieiro hike in Madeira offer such profound beauty that they effortlessly induce a state of mindfulness and presence.

This combined with other factors such as sounds of nature (birds, waterfalls), distraction free environment, endorphins, hiking on terrain that requires you to pay attention and the rhythmic movement of walking creates a calming effect that can help synchronise the body and mind, making it easier to enter a meditative state and more present state. This natural mindfulness practice not only enhances your appreciation of the environment but also fosters a sense of peace and relaxation, making mountain hiking a powerful antidote to the stresses of modern life.

3. Lowers Stress:

Hiking in the mountains can enhance mood and reduce stress through several mechanisms. The first is via negative ions as mentioned in the first benefit, the second is through physical exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, natural chemicals in the brain that boost happiness. Exposure to the soil bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to increase serotonin levels, which can reduce anxiety and improve mood. Additionally, the presence of phytoncides, natural compounds released by plants, can lower cortisol levels, reducing stress. These phytoncides also have immune-boosting properties, further contributing to overall well-being and mental health.

A study on 22 adults (summarised in references and further reading) found that short stays in natural environments, particularly mountain rivers and remote meadows, offered greater psychological benefits, including stress reduction, attention restoration, and improved well-being, compared to urban sites.

4. Strength and Endurance:

The physical demands of mountain hiking, such as climbing and navigating uneven terrain, helps to build muscle strength, particularly in the legs, core, and upper body. The act of ascending and descending hills and mountains engages the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, leading to increased muscle tone and strength. Hiking with a backpack also works the core and upper body muscles, enhancing overall stability and balance.

Additionally, mountain hiking improves cardiovascular endurance. The continuous physical activity over varied terrain challenges the heart and lungs, increasing stamina and enhancing overall endurance. This combination of muscle strengthening and cardiovascular conditioning makes mountain hiking an excellent full-body workout, contributing to great physical health and fitness.

5. Personal Accomplishment:

Conquering mountain trails, especially challenging ones, instil a sense of achievement. The physical and mental effort required to navigate steep inclines and rough terrains builds confidence and resilience, making each hike a rewarding personal victory, especially if you don’t like heights. Overcoming these challenges makes you feel good, enhancing self-esteem and encouraging a positive mindset.

Hiking can be a social activity, providing an opportunity to connect with friends, family, or hiking groups. The collective effort to reach a summit, overcoming challenges, and supporting each other along the way builds camaraderie and teamwork. Reaching the summit together amplifies feelings of accomplishment and connection, as the shared success reinforces bonds and creates a sense of shared achievement. 

6. Supports Neuroplasticity:

Mountain hiking supports neuroplasticity - brain's ability to adapt and reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. Physical exercise, such as hiking, increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth and survival of neurons. This enhancement of neuroplasticity improves cognitive functions, such as memory and learning.

The complex and varied physical environment of mountain trails also stimulates the brain by requiring constant adjustment and problem-solving, further contributing to neural growth and cognitive flexibility. Mental stimulation from navigating diverse terrains and making quick decisions boosts synaptic plasticity, enhancing the brain's ability to process and store information. This combination of physical activity and mental engagement makes mountain hiking a powerful promoter of brain health and cognitive resilience.

7. Enhanced Creativity:

I’ve always found Mountain landscapes and diverse terrains can help stimulate the mind and spark creativity. The natural beauty of the mountains clear mental clutter, making way for new ideas and innovative thinking. Being in nature reduces mental fatigue, refreshes the mind, and enhances cognitive functions. The quiet and solitude of the mountains are perfect for reflection and brainstorming, allowing ideas to flow freely.

Research shows that exposure to natural environments can significantly improve creative problem-solving abilities. The varied sensory experiences—sights, sounds, and smells—engage the brain in new ways, breaking routine thought patterns and encouraging divergent thinking. The absence of urban distractions allows for uninterrupted focus and deeper thought processes. This mental reset can lead to breakthroughs and enhanced productivity in both personal and professional spheres. The creative boost from mountain hiking is beneficial for anyone looking to improve their problem-solving skills and generate innovative ideas.

References and Further Reading: Benefits of Hiking in the Mountains

1. The influence of natural environments on creativity:

The study investigates how different degrees of natural environments impact creativity and attention restoration. Using photos depicting high, medium, and low perceived naturalness, 100 participants were tested on creative thinking and perceived restoration. Results showed that environments with higher perceived naturalness significantly improved creativity, especially in terms of elaboration and flexibility, and offered greater attention restoration benefits compared to low-naturalness environments. This suggests that natural settings can enhance creative performance and mental restoration.

Authors: Chin-Wen Yeh, Shih-Han Hung, Chun-Yen Chang; Published in: Frontiers in Psychiatry; Date: July 27, 2022

2. "Negative Air Ions and Their Effects on Human Health and Air Quality Improvement"

Summary: Negative air ions have multiple potential benefits for human and animal health, inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, and promoting plant development. However, the therapeutic effects on humans and animals are not consistently reliable and need further verification. Negative air ions are particularly effective in removing particulate matter (PM) from the air, offering a promising method for improving indoor air quality, especially during haze episodes. Plant-based Negative air ions generation systems under pulsed electric field (PEF) stimulation show significant promise and require more research to optimise their efficiency and applications.

The highest concentrations of NAIs are typically found in:

  • Natural Environments: Waterfalls, seashores, mountain areas, and forests, due to natural processes like the Lenard effect and corona discharge.

  • During Thunderstorms: Thunderstorms and lightning generate high electric fields that produce a large number of NAIs.

  • Artificial Sources: Areas with artificial corona discharge methods, where high negative voltage is applied to conductors to generate NAIs.

Authors: Shu-Ye Jiang, Ali Ma, Srinivasan Ramachandran

Published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 28 September 2018

3. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function

Summary of the Study: The study explores the effects of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) on human immune function. Conducted in Japan since 2005. The study explains that nature enhances immune function through three key mechanisms: 1) Phytoncides, antimicrobial volatile organic compounds released by trees, significantly increase NK cell activity and the production of intracellular proteins like perforin, granulysin, and granzymes A/B. 2) Forest bathing trips reduce stress hormone levels, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, in participants' urine, indicating lower stress levels which positively impact NK cell activity. 3) The sensory engagement with natural environments, including the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest, promotes relaxation and reduces psychological stress, further supporting immune health. Results showed that these effects lasted for more than 30 days, suggesting that regular monthly forest bathing can sustain heightened immune function. Comparatively, city visits did not produce these benefits, highlighting the unique advantages of natural environments for immune health.

Author: Qing Li; Published in: Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine; Date: March 25, 2009

4. Effects of Different Site Conditions on the Concentration of Negative Air Ions in Mountain Forest Based on an Orthogonal Experimental Study

Summary: The study conducted in Taibai Mountain National Forest Park, China, finds that the highest concentrations of negative air ions (NAIs), which provide health benefits such as improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, better mood, and enhanced physical recovery, are found in mountain forests at low altitudes, with high canopy density, and valley terrains, particularly peaking in the afternoon due to favourable temperature and humidity conditions.

Authors: Qi Chen, Rui Wang, Xinping Zhang, Jianjun Liu, Dexiang Wang; Published in: Sustainability; Publication Date: October 30, 2021.

5. Long-Term Effects of Mountain Hiking vs. Forest Therapy on Physical and Mental Health of Couples: A Randomized Controlled Trial

The study examines the long-term effects of mountain hiking and forest therapy on physical and mental health in sedentary couples aged 50-60. Participants were randomly assigned to a hiking group or a forest therapy group, engaging in daily 3-4 hour sessions for seven days. Data were collected before, immediately after, and at 60 and 180 days post-intervention.

Mountain Hiking : Enhanced aerobic capacity, muscle mass, hydration, and reduced blood pressure, especially in women.

Forest Therapy : Increased nature connectedness and reduced stress, with overall physical health benefits.

Both interventions experienced improved mood, life satisfaction, personal flourishing, and mindfulness.

Authors : Daniela Huber, Johanna Freidl, Christina Pichler, et al.; Published in : International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; Publication Date : January 13, 2023.

6. Why hiking is good for the soul

Hiking is beneficial for mental health as it provides a space to connect with nature, reduces stress, and promotes mindfulness. Dr. Jennifer Meggs' research from Lancaster University highlights that hiking fosters a sense of connection and well-being, offering unique psychological benefits not found in indoor exercise environments like gyms. Participants of hikes reported enhanced mood, reduced anxiety, and a sense of peace, demonstrating the therapeutic effects of outdoor activities.

7. Physiological and Psychological Benefits of Viewing an Autumn Foliage Mountain Landscape Image among Young Women

Viewing an autumn foliage mountain image significantly increased parasympathetic nervous activity, indicating enhanced relaxation, without altering oxyhemoglobin concentrations in the prefrontal cortex. Psychologically, participants reported greater comfort, relaxation, and natural feelings, with improved mood scores (lower negative and higher positive subscale scores) compared to viewing a city image.Further research is needed to explore long-term effects and applicability across different demographics and settings.

Authors : Hyunju Jo, Harumi Ikei, Yoshifumi Miyazaki; Published in : Forests; Publication Date : September 15, 2022.

8. Health Benefits of Climbing and Hill Walking

The article from the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) outlines the numerous physical, mental, and social benefits of climbing and hill walking. Physically, these activities improve cardiovascular health, muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. Mentally, they reduce stress, enhance mood, boost self-esteem, and promote mental agility and problem-solving skills. Socially, they foster strong bonds and trust among participants. Additionally, being in nature supports overall well-being and promotes environmental conservation.

9. Health-Related Effects of Short Stays at Mountain Meadows, a River and an Urban Site—Results from a Field Experiment 

The study compared the health effects of short stays in different environments (managed and abandoned mountain meadows, a mountain river, and an urban site) on 22 adults. It found that natural environments, particularly the mountain river and remote meadows, provided greater psychological benefits (stress reduction, attention restoration, well-being) than urban environments. Physiologically, pulse rates decreased across all sites except the river. However, there were marginal differences in blood pressure between green and urban sites, indicating that psychological benefits of natural environments are more pronounced than physiological differences.

Authors: Arne Arnberger, Renate Eder, Brigitte Allex, Martin Ebenberger, Hans-Peter Hutter, Peter Wallner, Nicole Bauer, Johann G. Zaller, Thomas Frank; Published in: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; Publication Date: November 26, 2018.

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