Hiking Your Way to Better Health

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Take a Hike!

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Looking for a way to get in shape while enjoying the great outdoors? Just lace up a pair of sturdy shoes and start walking.

"Hiking is a wonderful way not only to participate in aerobic exercise, but also to clear your head," says board-certified family physician Ray Sahelian, MD, who not only recommends hiking to his patients but also practices what he preaches by hiking regularly in the mountains near his Southern California home.

Texas allergist William Howland, MD, who says he's "just a guy who likes to be outdoors," is another hiking enthusiast, both professionally and personally. "Hiking offers benefits for both the mind and body," he says.

In the first place, hiking (which can be as moderate as a walk around your block or as strenuous as a mountain climb) is a weight-bearing exercise, which helps prevent osteoporosis, Howland explains. Being outside in the sunshine, which provides the body with vitamin D, is another bone-healthy reason for putting one foot in front of the other.

Because hiking is an aerobic exercise, it offers important cardiovascular benefits, says Sahelian. "Going up and down hills gives the heart a great workout."

What's more, hiking can also help you manage your weight, possibly reduce, or even eliminate, your need for insulin if you have Type 2 diabetes, and is a joint-friendly form of exercise that can keep arthritis sufferers more limber and mobile.

Hiking offers psychological benefits as well, say Sahelian and Howland. "There's a feeling of relaxation and enhanced well-being that comes on after a few-mile hike in the woods," says Sahelian.

"Hiking takes you away from the hustle and bustle of your daily life," says Howland. "It can put you into a meditative space, almost like self-hypnosis."

Almost anyone can hike at some level, say the doctors, but they caution that if you have any type of hypertension or heart disease, you should get your doctor's go-ahead before attempting uphill hikes. Even if you are healthy, says Sahelian, don't rush right off to your nearest mountainside. Train first by taking long walks on a flat surface, and also walking up and down steps or using an inclined treadmill in the gym to get in shape.

"Don't push yourself, and use common sense as you build up your endurance," Howland says.

"Hiking takes you away from the hustle and bustle of your daily life," says Howland. "It can put you into a meditative space, almost like self-hypnosis."

You don't need a hiking trail per se to walk -- walking around your own neighborhood is just as effective from a fitness standpoint as going to a park, but if you would like to put a little distance between yourself and the sidewalks you see every day, the American Hiking Society (AHS) can provide you with free information to guide you to one of the country's more than 170,000 miles of trails. Log on to www.AmericanHiking.org or call (800) 607-5509.

AHS is so gung-ho on the health benefits of hiking that the theme of this year's annual National Trails Day (June 1) is "Trails for Health."

"The theme underscores the health benefits of hiking and other outdoor recreational activities," said Mary Margaret Sloan, AHS president, in announcing the campaign.

"Spending time outside, whether I'm hiking or climbing, enables me to incorporate exercise into my life in a way I love," said "Trails for Health" spokesman Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind mountain climber to scale five of the world's seven tallest peaks, including Mt. Everest, and who is set to climb the last two later this year.

Besides Weihenmayer's visual challenges, he also suffers from seasonal allergies. If you do too, the thought of sniffing and sneezing your way along a woodland trail might not sound too appealing. Allergies, however, needn't keep you indoors, says Howland.

New developments in medications -- from once-a-day prescription nasal sprays to eye drops to antihistamines such as Allegra or Claritin, which don't cause drowsiness -- mean that most allergy sufferers can enjoy almost total relief from their symptoms with no side effects.

Howland advises those with allergies to stick to prescription medications and avoid over-the-counter allergy remedies which often cause drowsiness. "You don't want to be on a challenging trail and suddenly find you're sleepy," he says.

So, it looks like there's pretty much no reason at all for you not to walk out your front door...and keep on going. "Hiking is an enjoyable, non-competitive, aerobic exercise that you can do in the city or the country," says Howland.

What's not to like about that?

The American Hiking Society offers these tips for safe hiking:

  • Before you head out for your hike, make sure you look over a trail map and bring it with you. Take a compass with you and tell a friend what your planned route will be.
  • Know the appropriate pace or activity level for you, based on your health and fitness level.
  • Bring along plenty of food and water to keep your energy level up and to keep yourself well-hydrated. Apples, granola, or trail mix combine protein, carbohydrates, and a bit of fat to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Drink water before leaving on your hike and while you are walking -- even if you don't feel thirsty.
  • Dress for the weather. Take along a waterproof jacket and hat in case of unexpected rain (or snow).
  • Make sure you have properly fitted hiking boots. Choose a shoe that has plenty of room for your toes and has a snug, comfortable heel. The shoe should have solid support and good cushioning. This is especially true if you're going to be hiking on uneven terrain.
  • Pack a first-aid kit, pocketknife, matches, and flashlight.
  • Protect your skin from sunburn with sun block. Use an SPF of 15 or higher.
  • UV-rated sunglasses protect your eyes from harmful UV rays.
  • If you do suffer from seasonal allergy symptoms, don't forget your prescription antihistamine. If you are allergic to insect stings, make sure you carry your emergency kit with you.
  • Wash your hair and clothes after spending time outdoors to get rid of the pollen you may have picked up outdoors.

Originally published May 7, 2003

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