“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” This quote by British Historian G.M. Trevelyan sums up the primary reason I took up hiking. I used to weigh 420 pounds. Considered pre-diabetic, I was unable to get health insurance because I was considered too high a risk. Scared that my sedentary lifestyle was killing me, I made a plan to improve my diet and increase my level of physical activity. First, I started walking. It was work to move that super obese body; and honestly, I found it boring, tedious. But as I dropped weight and my health improved, I discovered and fell in love with hiking. Today, I’m going to talk to you about the three primary health benefits of hiking – these being aerobic, anaerobic and psycho-spiritual. And I’m also going share a bit of my own story of how my love for this amazing physical activity quite literally saved my life. I hope, too, to inspire you to try hiking for yourself.
|On a granite slab, part of a ring dike in Pawtuckaway, NH|
This evidence is hard to ignore. So I tried harder to find an aerobic activity that wouldn’t bore me to tears. Living in Miami, I struggled to find a cardio activity that engaged me. But after moving to Boston last year, I found several trail heads within minutes from my doorstep, and I was struck.
A doctor told me that by taking on hiking as my primary form of aerobic activity, I was able to reverse a potential diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, a condition the National Library of Medicine describes as a group of risk factors that occur together and increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. I really dodged a bullet.
|Bouldering, Sandia Foothills, ABQ, NM|
According to Livestrong.com, hiking is an excellent workout for the muscles of your lower body and core. The primary muscles worked include the quadriceps and hamstrings, the coordinating muscles of your upper leg; your calves, which push blood from your lower extremities back up to your heart; your glutes and hips; and your abs. If you carry a pack, your shoulders will build muscle over time as well, as you further strengthen your core.
An added benefit of building a strong core for me has been reduced pressure on my spine. As a result I gained an inch back on to my frame, an inch I’d lost because of my obesity. I’m stronger than ever before, and I feel like I got back 15 years of my life – I feel 25, not 40!
Beyond these amazing benefits to cardiovascular and muscular health, the US Department of Health and Human Services also recognizes that increased physical activity, such as hiking, reduces depression and leads to better cognitive function. Hiking may even improve the quality of your sleep.
It may be as simple as the chemical reaction of endorphins being released into your blood stream during physical exercise that causes a sense of wellbeing while hiking. But it is also something outside the body, too, that sparks an inner peace while out on the trail. Finding yourself in nature heals the soul. Vistas clear the mind and provide much-needed perspective when the stress of day-to-day living sets in. And each component of nature – the smells, the sights and the sounds – calm and soothe rattled nerves.
|Looking into Earth's eye; Thoreau's Walden Pond|
Imagine, feelings of rapture, and all you have to do is strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, grab a bottle of water and some trail mix, and make tracks to the nearest trail head. Regardless of your current fitness level, you can find a trail nearby where you can immediately start receiving the benefits of hiking. So I challenge you. Sometime in the next week, get out there and try for yourself and see if what I’m telling you is true. I promise that soon you, too, will notice the aerobic, anaerobic and psycho-spiritual benefits of hiking as you hike your way to health!