Much research has emerged in the last decade about the physical and mental health benefits of walking. Walking is increasingly recommended by doctors for cardiovascular health, weight loss, stress relief, and as a supplement for treatment of depression. Take all these good traits of walking, add in the rejuvenating outdoor views and the escape from the hustle and bustle, and it really becomes clear to me why hiking is one of the healthiest sports in which you can participate.

Benefits of hiking

Hiking keeps me fit – Not only do walking and hiking strengthen your muscles and joints, but they’re also good for maintaining a healthy weight. I also lose a noticeable amount of weight when I hike for extended periods, even though I eat enormous amounts of food. Nutritionists will tell you that if you walk all day in rugged terrain while carrying a pack on your back, you could potentially burn four thousand to six thousand calories a day, the equivalent of running two marathons. Furthermore, because regular exercise increases a person’s immune response, I also have more energy, and I don’t catch colds or fall ill easily when I’m hiking routinely.

Hiking brings about my most positive thoughts and conversations – This is not surprising, since doctors explain that exercise increases the endorphins in the brain and relieves stress, resulting in a euphoric state of mind.

Hiking inspires my creativity – The natural, simple and profound outdoors is the perfect place to let your mind be free. Recreation experts and business consultants will tell you that when you remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of your routine, the pressures of your normal environment fall off your shoulders. I’ve learned that I can think outside the box when I’m actually physically outside the box.

Hiking helps lighten the pack of life – It’s easy to get bogged down in our daily lives by taking on extra responsibilities, spending more time on work projects than with family and running in all directions without a focus. Hiking helps me regroup and separate my priorities from the responsibilities that I’ve shouldered. It’s amazing how much more refreshed and successful I am after I realign my focus and goals.

Benefits of hiking for kids

Children have the most to gain from all the great benefits that hiking offers. By introducing your kids to hiking, you’re helping them take steps, literally and figuratively, in the right direction.

Childhood obesity is at an all-time high. Research shows that most children will be exposed to some level of computer activity and TV by the age of two. This early exposure to electronic entertainment, as well as the trend of housing and shopping centres replacing undeveloped forest and farmland, has led many children to prefer video and computer games and TV to playing outside. Sloth-like indoor play is competing with a good old-fashioned romp in the outdoors. I’ve come to realize that it’s our role as parents to help our children appreciate the simple things that only nature can provide.

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in introducing children to outdoor playtime at a very young age. What you do with your child in the first few years of life has a tremendous impact on his or her future habits and development. In fact, ninety percent of a child’s brain is fully developed by five years of age. Young children are physically and mentally taking in everything they’re exposed to. It’s no coincidence that a child responds best to therapeutic intervention at these young ages (early intervention) if a child is at risk of a developmental delay. Given this evidence, it stands to reason that if you start your youngster out in the outdoors, they will embrace it as the norm later in life.

How to get your kids hiking

The best way to introduce children to the outdoors is to make it fun. Play is how kids learn. When something is fun, we want to do that activity again. Involving kids in fun, engaging outdoor activities will instill a desire to continue playing outside. Even within an environment of computers and television, kids will associate fun with playing outside and electronic gadgets won’t be their sole form of entertainment.

The simple yet profound outdoors offers an opportunity for our children to play, exercise and grow in a natural way. As our landscapes become more and more developed for commercial or residential purposes, our local, state and national parks and forests are quickly becoming the main resources for our children to discover the wonders of nature. Our parks play a critical role in nurturing an appreciation for the outdoors in our children and I encourage you to explore all that your local parks can offer. Then, expand your horizons to include state and national parks, both near and far. You’ll be teaching your children both a lifelong love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the incredible beauty of our country! As a seasoned outdoor family, we’ve been hiking with our kiddos since they were born.

Raising children is an adventure in itself. Knowing where to begin, how to plan and prepare and how to make hiking with your children fun shouldn’t be a mystery. I’ve compiled my tips and advice on hiking with kids into a step-by-step guide so that you can quickly and easily find the guidance you need for a specific age or topic. The faster you can find the information you need, the quicker you can hit the trail with your kids!

We all want to give our children an edge as they head out into the world. Guiding your kids step-by-step into the wonderful world of hiking will serve them well in the rapidly changing environment in which we live. Introducing your child to a sport that can serve as a relaxation and thinking tool, while providing them with an inexpensive way to stay both mentally and physically healthy, is worth every step. Hiking is a sport that will endure a lifetime, one that they will never outgrow.

Read more about the benefits of exercising outdoors in GREEN EXERCISE: Improve your mental health by exercising outdoors>>

Jeff Alt is a travelling speaker and hiking expert who provides seminars in collaboration with the Shenandoah National Park staff, and Appalachian Trail Shows in and around National Parks. Alt has walked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, the 218-mile John Muir Trail with his wife, and he carried his 21-month old daughter on a family trek across Ireland.

This article was excerpted from the book Get Your Kids Hiking. © 2013 by Jeff Alt. Published by Beaufort Books.