Thursday, May 31, 2012

Let your legs be your doctor; Hike your way to health!

Here is the copy of the inspirational talk I presented recently to public speaking students at Brown Mackie College and to members of the Lobo Toastmasters club at the University of New Mexico. If you are interested in booking me as a motivational speaker at an event, please contact me, Brian Schwarz, at Also, follow Life Coach Brian on Twitter @MyFitLife2Day, and check out my other blog, which charts my journey of overcoming super obesity, at MyFitLife2Day.

“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
Hiking is an extraordinary aerobic activity. Aerobic activity, also called endurance or cardio activity, is an essential component of human physical fitness. Knowing this, I still resisted doing any cardio whatsoever because I found it to be so incredibly boring. I never understood those people who could drone away for an hour on a treadmill or elliptical machine. But after reading the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the US Department of Health and Human Services, I realized I could no longer ignore the strong evidence that aerobic activity, such as hiking, benefits us in a number of significant ways. It aids weight loss and prevents weight gain. It lowers risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, reduces the instance of high blood pressure, positively effects cholesterol levels, and lowers risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, colon cancer and breast cancer. In short, engaging in regular aerobic activity lowers your risk of early death.

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
But hiking, I would find, is much more than an aerobic activity. It is also anaerobic, which basically means it brings muscles to the point of exhaustion and builds them up stronger. In fact, it makes the whole body stronger, also improving bone density.

According to, 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
For transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau it was his beloved lake Walden. He wrote: “A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” For me, it is the summit of any hill or mountain. I tend to tell people, perhaps less eloquently than Thoreau, that I hike for the payoff. It is the views, and the feelings that come from pushing my body to new limits in the cathedral of nature, that bring about small bursts of lasting moments of rapture.

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!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Hiking: back into the wilderness today

No, blog, I have not forgotten about you. The move to Albuquerque and getting settled here has not given me as much time as I would like to focus on accomplishing the goals outlined here, but I assure you I am still focused on my mission of living as a man of merit. I'm hitting the trails in the Sandia Mountain wilderness today and am preparing for my final two 10-mile hikes. Then I have one 20-mile hike to do before I can check off the hiking merit badge from my to-do list. Then I will shift gears just in time for summer and focus on the swimming merit badge (I think). More on this to come.