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The other week I went hiking with a group of friends. Saturday was to be a gorgeous day, so we headed up to Hawk Mountain, a mountain ridge that is part of the Blue Mountain Ridge in the Appalachian Mountain chain, located in central-eastern Pennsylvania. There are 13,000 acres of protected private and public land at Hawk Mountain, including a 2,600-acre sanctuary for hawks, eagles, and falcons. There are also nine trails of varying difficulty available to hikers.

This hike was no walk in the park. It turned out to be a vigorous workout with a lot of climbing up and along rocky paths to which I was told is known as “rock scrambling,” a method of ascending rocky faces and ridges. This was also no easy feat for someone like me who has a fear of heights; I just kept my eyes glued to the ground underneath my feet and did not look down, even when we reached the Pinnacle. On top of the treacherous terrain, my hiking boots didn’t seem to give enough flex for my ankles and I was way too overdressed. Regardless, I persevered and was a good sport about not knowing what I was getting myself into by hiking on this particular mountain range.

Hiking is wonderful cardio workout that is typically very social and tends to be across scenic paths with wonderful backdrops. It can exert almost every muscle in your body, including your legs, arms, hands, hips, butt, abdominals, shoulders and neck. Hiking is also great for the mind as the great outdoors is a great opportunity to clear your head and nourish your imagination.

As an aerobic exercise, hiking can improve your stamina as well as your cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness levels. It can also lower your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and lesson the threat of colon and breast cancer, and possibly lung and endometrial cancer. It’s also great for weight control or loss. For a person weighing 150 pounds, hiking can burn up to 370 calories an hour.

Hiking helps to increases your bone density and strength, and slows the rate of calcium loss, thus strengthening the bones and decreasing their susceptibility to break. This prevents one from bone diseases, such as osteoporosis and arthritis.

What’s also great about hiking is it’s inexpensive. Just invest in a good pair of hiking shoes and perhaps a pair of zip-off hiking pants – changing the pants into shorts in an instant. Bring along a hat, sunglasses and sun block, and off you go! Some choose to invest in a hiking stick. Others select a long sturdy stick (a trophy from one of their hikes) to help guide them along. Many go without.

What’s another wonderful fact about taking a hike is that when you return, you will feel better – mentally and physically – than when you left. Your body will feel better, your head will be clearer, and any stress level will have decreased. This will only make you want to hike again!

So take a break from the gym. Grab a friend or two, pack along your water bottle, and head to a nearby park offering  hiking trails and discover the amazing benefits that hiking has to offer.

Be Fit. Be Strong. Be Well.