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Walking is the most popular aerobic physical activity in the United States, with 111 million people hitting the pavement in 2018 as part of their fitness goals.
In addition, walking’s sister activity, hiking, enticed 57.8 million Americans to get out on the trails in 2020, a figure that has increased notably since 2014.
Both tick the boxes for getting you moving outdoors, a low-risk activity in a pandemic. But are these two forms of exercise really that different from one another? And if so, which one is better for you?
Walking is generally an exercise that you do outside in an urban or suburban setting, or indoors in a gym on a track or treadmill. Hiking, in contrast, is walking that’s done in the outdoors and along natural terrain. You’ll usually encounter elevation changes when hiking, but not necessarily when walking.
Both activities are low-impact cardiovascular exercises that can help you manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They are also great for your heart, said cardiologist Dr. Fahmi Farah, founder and medical director of Bentley Heart Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. “Walking is one of the best workouts for heart health for all ages, including those with heart problems and conditions,” she said. “Hiking is also heart-healthy and provides a higher calorie burn in a shorter amount of time.” Neither form of exercise is better than the other, according to Farah.
“Both are great at improving heart and lung performance, and both hiking and walking can help you lose weight,” said Darryl Higgins, a fitness expert and founder of Athlete Desk, a company that tests and reviews products such as treadmill and bicycle desks.
Which exercise is best for you depends upon your fitness goals and personal preferences. Here are four top considerations to help you determine whether to head out for a stroll or a hike.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
You want to burn the most calories: Go for a hike
The number of calories you can torch on a hike versus a walk mainly depends upon how much you weigh, the trail grade and how much weight you’re carrying on your back. Other factors include the weather, your age and sex, and the ruggedness of the terrain.
While you can burn around 100 calories per mile walking, you can easily double that figure when hiking. And if you strap a heavy pack on your back and tackle steep, arduous terrain, that number can soar to well over 500 calories per hour.
Don’t have time to drive to a trail? Then strike out on an urban hike, where you load up a backpack and walk around a hilly neighborhood. If you use trekking poles and move at a brisk pace, the arm movement adds intensity to your aerobic workout, helping to increase your calorie burn, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You want the least expensive option: Take a walk
Walking is free. Just put on some comfy, loose-fitting clothing and supportive shoes, then head out the door. There really isn’t much more to it, but watch the video above for some expert tips on proper form. Hiking can be as low-cost as walking if you’ve got easy access to a trail and are only heading out for a short jaunt. But that’s not typically the case.
Hiking often requires driving to a trail, which may be several hours away and require a user fee. And while you may be able to get away with hiking in the same clothes you use for walking, you’re better off wearing duds specifically made for trekking, such as trail shoes, hiking pants and breathable layers. You’ll also need at least some specialty gear, such as a backpack, trekking poles, and a water bottle or bladder. And if you’re backpacking, be prepared to potentially shell out hundreds of dollars for additional gear such as a tent, sleeping bag and camp stove.
You want the safer activity: Take a walk
While hiking isn’t a dangerous activity per se, it carries risks. “Hiking can be strenuous,” Higgins said. “It may not be ideal for beginners unfamiliar with uneven terrain.”
Trip and fall on a rocky, root-filled path, and you could end up with a sprained ankle or broken bone. And there are the various insects and critters out in the woods, which range from pesky mosquitoes to the potentially life-threatening snakes, bears or cougars. Cell service is often spotty or nonexistent on the trail, too, so if you run into trouble, it might be hard to summon help.
Walking, in contrast, is much safer. Sure, you can still sprain an ankle while stepping off a curb. But if you do, help is nearby. If the weather turns nasty? You can call a friend for a ride or hail a cab. Perhaps the biggest concern comes with walking after dark. If this is your preferred time, make sure to wear reflective clothing and be aware of your surroundings. And don’t head out alone in the wee hours of the morning.
You want to de-stress: Go for a hike
Both walking and hiking help dial down stress and anxiety, as do most forms of physical activity. Exercise is also great at improving alertness and concentration, lessening fatigue and boosting your overall cognitive function, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. But hiking delivers additional calming benefits because it’s done out in nature.
Scores of studies over the years have linked being in the great outdoors with mental well-being. A mere 10 minutes out in a natural setting increased happiness and lessened physical and mental stress, according to a 2020 Cornell University study. And a 2018 study published in Archives of Psychiatric Nursing showed that when people were out in nature, they became calmer, plus developed a sense of community, shared purpose and belonging.
If you’re not able to go on a hike but could use a big dose of calm, walking outside around town or in a local park is still better than walking in the gym. But if you can wander through the woods, do it.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.