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Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health
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Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 06:24:26 MST Print View

This topic has briefly come up in the thread about Samuel Gardner's 12,500 mile hike, but as I don't want to flog a dead horse (or another long thread) I thought I open a new thread on this topic.

Are there any studies about the effects of long-term long-distance hiking on health? I am not talking about a once in a lifetime thruhike, but about people who go hiking for years on end.

I remember a very interesting article (in the BPL print magazine? - I am not sure where I read it) about that topic claiming that humans where actually MADE to hike 20 miles every day and long-distance hiking means just going back to your natural state.

I think everyone agrees that LD hikers will have an excellent cardiovascular system, but what about long-term effects on bones, muscles, joints, ligaments on so on?

Will the prolific LD hiker end up in a wheel chair or as a happy senior still hiking 20 miles at age 90?

Christine aka German Tourist

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Not Comparable on 02/16/2011 07:08:02 MST Print View

Studies done on modern humans living modern lives would not really provide any clear answers. We avoid the foods we evolved to eat (in the name of health!), we eat foods we didn't evolve to eat (some of which society is just coming around to realizing the toxicity of), we wear cushy shoes from a young age, we don't put our bodies through the same physical stresses during the developmental stages (this affects things like bone density for the rest of a person's life) and we don't put them through the same physical stresses on a day-to-day basis. When we DO put them through those physical stresses, recovery is often inhibited by our constant states of emotional stress, which evoke the same hormonal response but keep it chronically elevated rather than episodic.

Raise a kid from birth without these issues and yeah, 20 miles a day for life no sweat. You read all kinds of anecdotes of elderly people in traditional cultures walking a dozen miles each way to the market from their home every day until they day they die, and these are not unrealistic. There's some 90-something year old man in Virginia (I think) who still runs trail ultras. The human body, given healthy conditions, has far more resilience than we often give it credit for.

Now, for each of us individually, saddled with the physical handicaps that come with living in a world of convenience, the picture may be very different and probably varies a lot from person to person. Maybe Skurka will run like clockwork into his 80's and Ryan Jordan's joints will start disintegrating when he turns 65, or maybe the other way around, or maybe none of the above. But I suspect that by eating real foods, getting out of toxic environments (go outside, in other words), and stressing your body in a healthy way while cutting down on chronic emotional stress, anyone can really improve their long-term health outlook.

Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 07:21:52 MST Print View


I was actually only referring to the physical effects, especially on the "mechanical parts" of our body.
But I find it interesting that you are referring repeatedly to emotional stress. Why do you think you have less emotional stress out hiking? LD hiking is mostly a very lonely affair - would that not put a lot of emotional stress on the hiker?

Also, now that you have responded personally I would really appreciate if you could elaborate more on something you have written in the 12,500 mile thread:

"...(like eating cereal grains, whose toxins are associated with, among other things, arthritis... interesting, eh?),..."

What do you mean by that? Are you referring to the toxins of the grains or to toxins like pesticides and fertilizers?


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 07:33:52 MST Print View

Well, I am not to sure the human species was designed for any one thing in particular, except as masters of our environment as it exists by fairly minor random genetic change. Mostly the last 10,000 years or so has been intellegence (more broadly usefull.)

Anyway, we seem to be built for much higher activities than we now have in our modern environment. That said, there are still a large number of ocupations that require a lot of time on your feet and legs. Builders, and most tradesmen spend a lot of time lifting, carrying and climbing. Typical activities for our bodies.

But, for now and the near future, provided we can learn to get along, everyone needs a minimal amount of exercize. That will vary. It can be simple walking 20 miles per day. Or it can be balanced workouts for 20 min per day. It can be running 5 miles per day. These all will keep you in good physical condition. Our bodies seem to be pretty tolerant of nutrition, exercize, and even damage. For myself, I try to maintain a walking/running routine of about 5-10 miles per day, 5 days per week. I have been for 10 years. No bad joints that weren't there to begin with. I did pull my knee a few years ago, but it is not bothering me any more. At around 60, I figure that's doing pretty well. If I can keep hiking till 70 or so, I'll be happy.

Too much?? Well, I certainly do not know how much is too much. Like the man lifting a calf every day. Eventually, he will break. 100 pounds? 200pounds, 500pounds?... There are limits.

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 09:54:27 MST Print View

I was referring more to the fact that the chronic stress most people experience as a result of our modern lifestyles has physical effects: elevated cortisol levels inhibit tissue repair and can have a catabolic effect leading to muscle loss, as well as taxing the immune system and increasing the body's susceptibility to infection. Emotional stress affects the mechanics of the body. The permanent hormonal shifts and long-term tissue damage resulting from a whole lifetime of this may have effects on long-term joint health.

Personally, I find hiking to be a fantastic stress-reliever. For others it might be lonely and thus more stressful. I think a lot of us who just love it experience more temporary, intense stresses while out hiking (like a high-stakes scramble that really pumps the adrenaline). The stress is intense and temporary, and once it's over you relax and your system recovers. This is different from chronic stress from traffic and deadlines and taxes and etc- a high-stress/recovery-time cycle strengthens the system, whereas a constant-lower-level-stress state just wears it down.

RE: Grains, I'm referring more specifically to the lectins found in most grains, particularly gluten. The shift to agriculture has weeded out most humans who don't have enough tolerance to them to survive to reproductive age, but that's all we've got; a tolerance. Some (like myself) have less tolerance than others; I have a skin condition that flares up in response to gluten. Most have no such outward symptoms, but the system-wide inflammatory effect of gluten is well established, with no known exceptions. Many find that when they cut gluten out of their diets, ailments that they had previously regarded as "normal signs of aging" disappear, most notably arthritis and other joint problems. Joint problems are inflammation-based, so does it not make sense that removing one of the primary dietary sources of inflammation would reduce them?

People are catching on in the realm of sports: some pro cycling teams have shifted to rice for a carb source, since rice is relatively free of wheat's inflammatory agents, and have reported better recovery and general well-being in their athletes (it's all anecdotal thus far, of course).

Negative effects on human physiology following a shift to diet based on cereal grains is also noted in the archaeological record, prior to the development of fertilizers and pesticides, which points to toxins within the plants themselves.

Edited by er1kksen on 02/16/2011 09:56:35 MST.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
re on 02/16/2011 10:14:49 MST Print View

There's this PBS show "Killer Stress/National Geographic" or something like that

They said that the bad stress is where things are done to you that you have no control over - like your boss telling you you you have to do something in a way you know won't work : )

Long distance hiking is just the opposite - you have total control over when you get up, how far you have to hike during the day, etc. Life is very simple. Zero stress.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
slow-motion yo-yo diet and other perils on 02/16/2011 11:24:54 MST Print View

The thing that I'm finding among at least some thru-hikers that I know are post-trail weight issues. This isn't just a one-time, but can be an "each time" issue of gaining quite a bit of weight after the trail, so that for a repeat-offender thru-hiker, it could become like a slow-motion yo-yo diet.

Thru-hikers joke about how they'll have trouble with eating too much after they get home, but I think the reality of it is that it is indeed a problem, or at least it can be for us older hikers with more naturally slower metabolisms. Maybe not something really dramatic, but potentially a serious issue.

I've heard discussion of related issues just from having forced so much bad food down along the trail for months in a row, and don't know really what to think about that. Some bad stuff offset by a lot of benefits, hard to say which one trumps the other.

I imagine there could be some joint, ligament, etc type of issues or even bone spurs or the like, particularly from folks that carry relatively heavy loads. I'm not aware of anything like for me that after two thru-hikes over three years, FWIW.

The other issue I can think of is that a thru-hike can push to the fore a problem that you might have had, or have had the potential for, but might otherwise not had to deal with. In my case it's a couple of foot issues (Morton's Neuroma, and Bunionettes). I think there's a lot of potential for that sort of thing, again, particularly so for older hikers.

For the most part, however, a reasonably fit person should be able to walk a lot of miles for months at a time without long term issues as a result, so long as they're reasonably intelligent/wise about it, know when to push through pain vs. when to stop and deal with things, etc.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 11:45:07 MST Print View

There probably aren't any definitive studies. IMO...

Our bodies are designed to walk. If damage is not done to joints and other structural components, a lifetime of walking is easily achieved. With LD hiking, the issue is not to over-stress or damage anything. With time, the body can become stronger, or it can break down and suffer damage.

For me, I did a couple LD jaunts in my youth. But I have been very active all my life. Lots of exercise and 30 years of working on my feet for 8+ hours per day. Ma Gatewood might be a good example to research. Lots of LD hiking at an older age.

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/16/2011 13:00:10 MST Print View

There are probably 2 discussions here: The effect of thru-hiking ( which might be loosely likened to a walking marathon ) and a general lifestyle with daily activity involving as much walking as possible.

The national geographic article below discusses the health of a shepherd in Corsica I think. One must be a subscriber to Natgeo to access the article. The conclusions might be characterized as a very active lifestyle revolving around non-stressful activity is just about ideal for long term active healthy lifestyle.

Rory Stewart had a lyrical passage in his book "The Places in Between" which as I recall points out that the most essential characteristics of the Homo Sapien are upright bi-pedal locomotion and opposable thumbs.

Walking is what we are and should do.

As an aside the golf cart is one of the truly great crimes of the 20th century: Golf in the Kingdom. A classic example imho. A beautiful almost mystical game meant to be played on foot;(I believe walking is the very essence of golf) over the hills and moors turned into a 4-wheeling rodeo for fat guys; who wouldn't be fat guys if they walked more........sigh; with the ultimate irony being playing from carts REALLY slows down the game and clogs the course leading to the build-up of cortisol and so forth. I gave up in disgust decades ago but still kind of miss it.


Chris Hanson
(ChrisHanson) - F

Locale: Eastern Wyoming
Effect of Long-term Hiking on Health on 02/16/2011 22:25:56 MST Print View

I don't mean to sound crass but before we get too blissed out on the romantic notion of the utopian lives of non-modern humans (for lack of a better description), consider a few things:

What was the average lifespan of these people compared to "modern man"? We can argue about quality of life and other semantics but the fact is that "modern man" lives approximately twice as long as "primitive man".

"Primitive Humans" did not live in a world free of toxins. Living in smoke filled caves/huts, they suffered from chronic eye and lung problems, as they began to work metals, they suffered from metal toxicity issues, etc.

Many conditions easily treated with modern medicine such as dysentary were often deadly. Modern germ theory revolutionized human life.

I think the bottom line is there are plusses and minuses to both "lifestyles" and demonizing or romanticizing either is not useful in a discussion like this.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Long terms effects... on 02/16/2011 23:30:04 MST Print View

I think Steinbeck said it well in the opening lines to TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY..

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature
people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy
prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. …
In other words, I don't improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum.
I fear the disease is incurable. "

But that's a mental health issue...perhaps a bit different than what the OP meant? :)

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/17/2011 08:36:53 MST Print View

I guess it goes without saying that walking and lots of it is good for both mental and physical health ( and that statement is clear evidence of what my college philosophy profs would describe as something like the schizophrenia of the modern western psyche: mental AND physical health........ ;)

The question seems to be what potential, under what conditions; major long distance type hikes.....thru-hikes; might have for deleterious health effects that could be persistent.

I thought Brian's typically thoughtful post raised some good points especially re: the "yo-yo" weight gain/loss.

and questions about the potential effect of necessarily limited diet during the relatively long term possibly physically stressful duration of a thru-hike or other major , long distance, "scheduled" hike.

Ike Mouser
(isaac.mouser) - F
Long distance hiking and helath on 02/17/2011 09:01:26 MST Print View

Cardivascular will be better with hiking without a doubt.

As an individual with numerous nerve/bone spinal issues, i can attest that hiking at a moderate pace and using poles meticulously does reduce uncomfortableness/pain in my back as compared to not using them and going fast. However, any very long distance running(which is much worse than walking for the spine) or walking still compresses the spine with every step, so for me this is unavoidable and goes with the territory.

Your diet will be worse on the trail without a doubt. When im at home i make vegetable/fruit smoothies every morning for breakfast. I dont see myself eating fresh fruits and veggies on the trail, instead relying more on junkfood/dehydrated food. This will mean Im flooding my body with more growth hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and preservatives than I normally wood on my organic diet at home. So I would expect an elevated cancer risk if i LIVED on the trail for years at a time eating trail food.

I would think the brain would also be more stimulated by a dynamic environment than a static one, but again diet plays a role so its hard to say.

One of my biggest concerns would be repetitive motin injuries/scar tissue buildup. Trigger points and knee issues i think would be a big issue. Your knees would definately be worse off. Expect lots of toe/foot problems as well.

Overall you will probably be healthier, barring cancer from unhealthy foods.

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Re: Effect of Long-term Hiking on Health on 02/17/2011 10:49:22 MST Print View

I'm assuming you're referring primarily to my post. I made no attempt to romanticize: I pointed out that certain differences between the lifestyles of paleolithic humans and our own modern ones have negative health effects. This is not to imply that everything was perfect back then, or that modern life does not have its advantages.

In regards to those things which have been, indeed, well considered:

Average lifespan estimations are based on skeletal remains. They compare bone density and degeneration against the average level of degeneration in modern humans with age. Since, as noted, those ancient remains are typically of those who were not subjected to the dietary deficiencies associated with grain consumption and whose bodies were subjected to stresses that encourage high bone density from birth, we really have no idea if those estimates are accurate at all. There's no good reason to assume that their skeletal degeneration rates would be identical to ours, and logical thinking would suggest the otherwise.

Further, we're discussing average lifespans. That says nothing of maximum lifespan; skeletal remains of what appear to be elderly ancient humans are uncommon, but they are found nonetheless. Risks that we don't face today, such as predation by animals, starvation, and interaction with a topography that lacked guardrails and warning signs kept average lifespan down; they weren't getting old and creaky and dying in their beds at age 40. Average lifespan indicates nothing about their typical health during the time that they spent alive, but most remains suggest that that health would usually be characterized as "robust." If they managed to avoid being killed by external factors, their own bodies probably wouldn't take them out any earlier than ours do.

We're discussing physical health here, and if we want to achieve robust health not unlike theirs, there's no reason why we can't modify some aspects of modern life to facilitate that while keeping the niceties that allow our high average lifespans.

Living in huts filled with smoke was by no means a universal characteristic of pre-agricultural cultures. Obviously that would be detrimental to health. Sure, that was probably a feature of some cultures (and still is) but that's not what a few million years of evolution has developed our physiologies to endure, unlike walking long distances. Same with metalworking. They didn't have industrial smog to deal with or rivers laden with solvents and heavy metals; their surrounding environments were less toxic. If they chose to subject themselves to toxins of their own producing anyways, well, that seems to be a common human mistake.

Yes, illnesses that did occur were often very serious. However, they were nowhere near as prevalent as they are even now, thanks to lower population densities. Yes, modern germ theory was a revelation; but it was agriculture that allowed the population densities to allow the horrific health conditions that existed before modern medicine got rolling.

But yes, disease was there. And it's still here. It seems that we've traded fast killers like, say, dysentary, for slow killers like heart disease and cancer.

The ideal would be eliminating the modern factors that feed problems like heart disease and cancer while also enjoying modern medicine's ability to save us from what would have killed us in primitive cultures. Again, I have no interest in either romanticizing or demonizing either; just demonizing the specific factors that have a negative impact on health. Of course there's nothing inherently superior or inferior about an activity or food due to the time period it's associated with, but it is informative to look at the differences in each and how they relate to each other.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Physical stress and the body on 02/17/2011 12:17:58 MST Print View

Archaeologists have skeletal "landmarks" they look for to determine if that person did a lot of physical labor. Things like worn joints, deformed spinal columns, heavy muscle attatchment areas on the bones, etc.

Repeated physical stress DOES leave its marks on us. The key word here is REPEATED.

So yes, very long distance backpacking will likely leave its mark on leg joints and, with poor carry techniques and heavy loads, the spinal column.

That said the hiker's genetic makeup also affects the wear and tear. IT's something one must be wary of to avoid problems later in life. I'm 67 and hike with a 50 year old who has real knee pain and cannot carry even a 25 lb. backpack, all due to his genetics. Me? My knees are fine.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/17/2011 16:40:16 MST Print View

I think that long-term, long-distance hiking makes your metabolism more efficient. A lot of former thru-hikers struggle with weight after their hikes. Look at Lion King. You can tell Lion King is bothered by it because he talks about his weight a lot.

I was looking for information about this just the other day. I found a blog post written on it, not that this is any kind of research or anything.
Why Hikers Get Fat

In my own personal experience, I went from overweight but reasonably fit for hiking, to normal weight (20lb weight loss) to gaunt (when I ran out of food) to normal weight by the end of the trail. After the trail, I gained every bit of weight back and then some. It's not like I went out of my way to overeat. It just came right back. And keeps coming. :( I would go on another hike just to be normal weight again.

It took almost a year for the gnawing hunger of being a long distance hiker to leave me completely. I would still find myself getting really hungry if I got any vigorous exercise. Now I can go for a long hike and not be starving. I can even let myself get hungry without feeling obsessed with getting something to eat. I feel pretty normal again, except for the weight that continues to creep on slowly even though I walk an hour or more every day.

I've decided to try running. I ran a few times this week. It makes me hungry. :( I have to resist eating when I'm hungry, but what will that do to my metabolism? Slow it even more?

Steve S
(idahosteve) - F

Locale: Idaho
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/17/2011 16:41:37 MST Print View

I just finished reading "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. A tale about running, our bodies, the bane of Nike, and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon. I think this book speaks volumes about this exact topic. These indigenous people are still living the way they did 100 years ago, and yes, they are hiking, and running HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS of miles well into their later years (50-60). Their simple diet, real foods, and remote lifestyles have insulated them to a degree. But their overwhelming desire to stick to their beliefs have also kept cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other diseases almost non-existent.
A great read, and one I highly recommend as it doubles as a very viable tome on some great training techniques to get us all going for more miles!

Ike Mouser
(isaac.mouser) - F
post hike gluttony on 02/17/2011 16:50:19 MST Print View

honestly, after long hikes, i've consumed past the point of fullness many times. Often for weeks at a time. While my metalabism(as a child i know says) is lightning fast, I am not gaining weight. Being on the trail, i dream of cheeseburgers, greasy pizzas and fried spam. Being deprived of truly filling food (in a mental sense) for a long period results in a glutonous outburst for me. Its length is determined by the length of the hike. it has been a regular routine of mine to eat a ginormous fast food meal immediately after each long hike. Last time I ate a whole works pizza from pizza hot, an order of boneless bbq wings from KFC, garlic cheesy breadsticks from pizza hut, and 2 large cokes. its a tradition and i can see how long distance hikers gain weight. But if they just get back on the trail, they'll lose it.

Edited by isaac.mouser on 02/17/2011 16:54:55 MST.

patrick walsh
(apbt1976) - F
its simple on 02/17/2011 21:35:50 MST Print View

Calories in calories out. One cant exceed the other or you will gain weight. You wanna loose weight you gotta do the math the other direction, what is so hard to understand or put into practice about this its math. People whom struggle with weight really get me when they complicate it with all kinds of questions and why this why that and but this and but that.

I will def say i can see long distance hiking/climbing creating a bit of a yo yoing affect with ones weight. I know this same thing came to fruition for me as a pro cyclist and having varying workout loads dif days of the week and very dif work loads dif times of the year def meant i needed to adjust my food intake on a daily basis and live by it. Spending up to 40 hrs on a bike much of the time at a very high intensity will do a little something to you base metabolic rate for sure good and bad!! I think though that if you keep yourself in tip top shape much of the time a handful of weeks or a couple months 5-10 lbs over your lowest weight is actually a good thing and give the body a chance to repair and recover.

When you stop being so active you will still get hungry but not starving like when you are working out like crazy.. eat many small small meals through the da and you will never be starving and clear the fridge out in one shot. Also drinking water and tea works wonders to keep you full and increase you base metabolic rate.

No way in hell joints don't see some kind of affect, no way in hell! Can dif people handle dif stress while other people can not, of course that is just common sense. The way i see it is if something hurts your should pay attention to it or maybe spend your best years on the couch? If nothing is bothering you and you just have achy muscles from over use than you have very littel if anything to worry about.

Do anything physical long enough though and chances are you will get some kind of chronic injury of some sort?

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: its simple on 02/17/2011 22:43:39 MST Print View

> Calories in calories out.

Everybody says that. But you'll find out someday, either by doing a thru-hike or by getting older, that at some point, the calories in need to go down even if the calories out stay the same or go up.

What I struggle with is finding the balance between starving, which would only trigger my body to become even more conservative, and eating enough to keep that from happening without gaining weight. I gained weight after my first long hike eating grapefruit and peaches even though I continued to ride my bicycle 20 miles round trip to work each day.