Forum Index » General Lightweight Backpacking Discussion » Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health


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Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Re: its simple on 02/18/2011 04:10:13 MST Print View

"calories in calories out" is a truly unfortunate myth. If it really WERE that simple, don't you think a whole lot more people would be a lot less obese?

First of all, the body is not a closed system: the amount of energy your body expends changes according to the type and amount of calories you consume. If you reduce the calories and/or eat the types of foods that trigger the hormones that put your body into "storage mode" (I'm simplifying) your body "turns down the thermostat," so to speak.

Second, speaking of food in terms of "calories" is a pretty rough science. Calories are determined by burning food in an incinerator, which is obviously not representative of how the body actually uses that energy. We get these calorie amounts and build a model, roughly, of energy flow in the human metabolism, but that's all it is, is a model (and one with some serious shortcomings). Saying "a calorie is a calorie" is like saying that the walking distance between any two meridians on the globe is always the same; after all, it's the same on that nice map you've got. Problem is, that map is just a model, and its shortcomings are that it cannot represent the 3-dimensional up and downs that change the actual walking distance between those two points.

Sadly, the human body is not one of those things in life that's simple.

I have never struggled with weight either. Thing is, I can be quite sure that it wasn't a result of always keeping my "calories in/calories out" balance in tune.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Weight on 02/18/2011 06:01:47 MST Print View

I'm not sure why so many people focus on weight. Weight isn't much of an issue (within reason of course). The problem is too much (or too little) body fat.

Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/18/2011 06:23:54 MST Print View

I am surprised which direction this thread has taken. Of course I know of the yoyo-effect problem but had not thought of it as an aspect when I started this thread.

I had hoped that someone would come up with some sort of scientific survey on the subject, especially on the "wear and tear" problem regarding joints, ligaments etc.

When I hiked the PCT in 2004 another female hiker was even doing a survey on the effects of long-distance hiking on menstruation... now that was pretty specialized! Therefore I expected more medical information on this - much broader - subject.

Like others in this thread I would expect some "wear and tear" symptoms in the knees and hips. But when I mentioned that briefly to my own doctor I was surprised to hear that he actually told me that hiking is good against arthrosis. Movement would be good for joints suffering from arthrosis. So what to believe now?

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/18/2011 07:12:08 MST Print View

The calcium buildups associated with arthritis are a response of the body to repair damage and normal wear and tear on the joints. This usually involves 2 major components to keep it to a minimum. The first is a wide range of motions on the joints to prevent buildups at the edges causing limited range. The second is balanced usage of the joints.
A very simplistic example: Walking.
Walking on pavement the same way every day will lead to arthritis buildups around the hips, knees, ankles, and toes (including the feet) that are unused. But not directly in the areas that are used for the walking. Walking on uneven ground will cause the wear to be distributed more around the entire joint structures.

A LOT more going on here, I did not mention injuries, climbing stairs, mountaineering, twisting, stretching, or any more complicated motions. As I said, a facetious and simplistic example.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/18/2011 08:58:44 MST Print View

In 2006, a doctor did do a survey of thruhikers. It's not really what you're asking for though.

The Thru-Hiker's Medical Guide

Richard DeLong
(Legkohod) - MLife

Locale: Eastern Europe / Caucasus
Must do more fieldwork on 02/18/2011 10:42:22 MST Print View

Fieldwork is the only way to answer this question. Otherwise you risk biased conclusions based on romanticized images of what a healthy life is and various other persuasions. I will share what I have learned, and maybe others thru-hikers can do the same.

I would love to believe that thru-hiking promotes longevity and happiness, but a year and a half after my PCT thru-hike, there's still a brief moment of tenderness every morning when I first get on my feet. At least two other veteran PCT thru-hikers related to me that they had this for a year or more after their thru-hike.

For a month after returning home, it was painful to run. My legs and particularly knees felt stiff and hurt upon impact. Then it went away.

I believe Ray Jardine when he writes that the body becomes weaker as a thru-hike progresses. Minerals run low. Long-term muscle fatigue sets in. I talked with someone on the PCT who had participated in a study of AT thru-hikers. The study, run by Alma College students, found that after 500 miles hikers had the cardiovascular indicators of elite athletes, but made essentially no further fitness gains.

As for the emotional effects, I think that for most modern Homo Sapiens the effect will be positive compared to their normal lifestyles. However, two people can leave the border on the same day and arrive in Canada on the same day, and yet one will have spent 95% of his hike among people, and the other just 5%.

Thru-hiking also lowers reproductive function:) You'll find a negative correlation between the number of hiking miles under someone's belt and the number of children they have. But is that correlation or causation?:)

I loved my thru-hike and will do it again.

Buckwheat's PCT Pages

Edited by Legkohod on 02/18/2011 10:43:54 MST.

Steven Paris
(saparisor) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/18/2011 11:51:55 MST Print View

Richard,

I can just see it now: you standing outside REI, after just getting slapped, "I said long HIKES! Really, I just want to study your reproductive functions after a long hike!"

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
couch potato on 02/18/2011 13:22:03 MST Print View

unless you have a medical condition ... its like anything else

if you love it, just do it

otherwise youll be like me watching reruns of CSI on my couch eating cheezy poofs

if it gets you out and about .. jus do it !!!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: its simple on 02/18/2011 14:29:24 MST Print View

> "calories in calories out" is a truly unfortunate myth. If it really WERE that simple, don't
> you think a whole lot more people would be a lot less obese?

No.
First of all, if you don't have too much of the 'calories in' bit it will be very hard to get fat.
Second, in addition to limiting the amount of food you eat, you need exercise. For many people that is just too hard.
Third, modern food marketing is aimed at getting your to eat more, more, more of product X (and Y, and Z), in total disregard for medical sense and consumer welfare. The Salt Institute and various sugar suppliers are especially at fault here.

The FACT is, obesity is a very recent 'epidemic', and is mainly confined to America and other very well off western nations. Guess what countries have an over-supply of foods high in fat, salt and sugar?

But limiting your own food intake and getting enough exercise seems just too hard for western man.

Cheers
PS: 'man' means the 'human race' here.

John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
Recovery Time on 02/18/2011 18:07:35 MST Print View

This has been on my mind for the last few days after going thru Jack Haskel's CDT photo journal and examining the changes in the folks he continually photographed over the couple thousand miles they walked. I have never hiked anything longer than the JMT, both times after age 60. While on the trail I felt fine but with a couple of nights of lousy sleep. The concern I had was on return experiencing the need for extra sleep, going to bed at about 8:00 and sleeping the night thru. This need for extra sleep continued for about 2.5 to 3 weeks after this last JMT in 2009. Except for this need for more sleep for a prolonged period, I felt fine. Normal sleep for me is 6.5 hours waking fully restored and ready for the day.

I wonder if this type of hiking can lower the body's resistance diseases or, in fact, trigger a latent propensity for a disease. I would like to hear from you long-distance hikers about any recovery issues you experienced. thanks, John

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Recovery Time on 02/18/2011 18:30:08 MST Print View

> The concern I had was on return experiencing the need for extra sleep, going to bed at
> about 8:00 and sleeping the night thru. This need for extra sleep continued for about
> 2.5 to 3 weeks after this last JMT in 2009.

But why should this be a 'concern'? It's just your body taking the opportunity to do some repair and restoration, after all. Nothing wrong with that.

> I wonder if this type of hiking can lower the body's resistance diseases

That depends on whether you stay within reasonable limits or not. It is well-known that Olympic athletes live on a bit of a knife-edge, and can easily break down. That is why they (or their coach) tries to bring their training to a peak a day or two before their main event. Then they relax.

For someone doing a long thru-hike at a reasonable speed, the situation is very different. By 'reasonable' I mean that you are (mostly) enjoying it. During such a thru-hike your body is operating at a high level of performance. Your metabolism is revved up, your cardio-vascular system is revved up, and so is your lymph system. In fact, provided that you are staying within your limits, it would be fair to say you should be at a high state of good health, and very resistant to most diseases.

So the moral is - go and do it again!

Cheers

Edited by rcaffin on 02/18/2011 18:32:41 MST.

Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/18/2011 19:08:54 MST Print View

Here is my own personal observations on the subject and from that you will see why I am so interested in the subject.

I have been more or less constantly hiking or cycling since 2007. Every year I have hiked between 5,000 and 7,000 km and have done some serious cycling and a bit of paddling as well between trails. The maximum down time between serious long outdoor activities has been 3 months twice, when I had gone home to Germany to visit friends. I hike at normal thruhiker pace at about 20 - 22 miles per day. When cycling I average about 100 day. I have been doing this for four years straight now and I start wondering what the effects on my body will be if I continue much longer. So far I could observe the following:

Nutrition: I have lost the hiker hunger. On previous long-distance hikes the hiker hunger kicks in after about 3 weeks on the trail and I could just pig out. I have lost these cravings almost completely. When on a long and demanding hike I still eat a lot, but AYCE buffets have lost much of their appeal. Also, I don't suffer from the yoyo effect any more, probably because I just don't have enough long down time to seriously gain weight.
Another problem for me that has not been mentioned here is the long-term effect of water treatment. I have been using Aquamira for 4 years straight now and wonder if this could have a carcinogen effect on the long run.

Physical effects: I have never had any serious orthopedic issues - no stress fractures, no knee problems, no shin splints, no tendonitis, no nothing. Maybe about 3 blisters in 4 years. But now my hip starts hurting a bit, not only when I am hiking, but also when I have down time, but it is not very painful or serious. I will have to look into this problem more closely.
Whenever I go back to Germany I have done standard testing of blood and urine for cholesterol, diabetis and the like. The results have always been perfect. Despite the fact that I eat about 300 gr of chocolate every day on the trail even my blood sugar is ok. Apparently the malnutrition on the trail (too much sugar, crappy processed food etc.) has not had any ill effect on me (yet). My test result are so good, that last time my doctor thanked me for coming in - she said she hardly ever sees patients as healthy as I am. What a compliment!

Psychological effects: This is actually a big issue. I do love what I am doing (elsewise I would not have been doing it for 4 years straight), but on the long run it is difficult to deal with loneliness. Sometimes I don't talk to people for a whole week - just because nobody is on the trail. On the other hand I seem to look younger the more I hike. When I ask people to guess my age now I am generally estimated about 7 to 10 years younger than I actually am. (I am 43 years now). When I was still pursuing a "normal" life, people would normally guess my age more or less correct. Therefore I guess that all the hiking must have some positive influence.

I find it very difficult to deal with doctors now because they just cannot comprehend the lifestyle and deal with me like with a "normal" patient. I tried to talk to my orthopedist about the "wear and tear" problem, but I did not get the impression that he really grasped the concept of long-distance hiking. This is one of the reasons why I was hoping for some input here.

Christine aka German Tourist

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Re: Re: Re: its simple on 02/19/2011 08:00:45 MST Print View

Well, obviously if you eat a lot of high-calorie food and don't exercise, you will get fat. But I also know a lot of people who watch what they eat and exercise almost religiously and are still overweight. I also know people who eat like crap (and lots of it) and at most walk from their home to the bar and are still thin going into old age. And then I know people who've lost a lot of weight while pigging out and just avoiding certain foods.

The human body isn't a bank account for calories (calories being a rather abstract model, anyways). The types of foods you eat matter; your body reacts differently to protein than it does to fat than it does to carbohydrate, not to mention the myriad other substances in any food item.

Oversupply of sugar should be first on that list, in my opinion. That sugar, of course, comes mostly from corn (and thus the grain industry), the politics of which are simply delightful. So I expect they'll keep marketing little cups of sugar like low-fat yogurt as healthy because, well, they're "low fat." Well, what stimulates fat storage like nothing else when you eat it? Sugar.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/19/2011 10:36:10 MST Print View

There is a lot going on with your body. Doctors and biochemists don't know everything. I certainly don't, being neither. But, I do know your body is one of the most efficient chemical processing plants that nature can produce through millions of years of evolution.

If you need calories for some reason, it will break down parts of itself to get them. This is weight loss. If you have just enough calories this is status quo, this doesn't ever happen. You body is always fluctuating between too many and too few. This is the NORMAL state for your body and nothing to worry about. Too many calories means they will get buffered in the body (liver, bodily fluids, and tissues.) Continued excessive calories will decrease processing levels, and increase fat production. This all happens at once, actually. So exercising can move things around without changing your weight.

Hiking, or walking on uneven terrain with a light to moderate load (at least for most of us,) is one of the best exercises you can do, generally.

Edited by jamesdmarco on 02/19/2011 10:38:20 MST.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/19/2011 14:53:03 MST Print View

Hi Christine

Opinions only!

Hiker hunger - yeah, we settle into a steady diet too. Seems normal to me.

> using Aquamira for 4 years straight now and wonder if this could have a carcinogen effect on the long run.
I would be a little bit concerned here. Continued ingestion of chemicals ... That is one reason we switched to UV. Lighter than filters, and also handles viruses.

> But now my hip starts hurting a bit, not only when I am hiking, but also when I have down time,
Just a thought. Walking is mostly a straight line action. The problem here is apparently known, and the recommended solution seems to be stretching exercises for the OTHER muscles around the hips. My wife found this out on the net, as we both sometimes have the same problem. Seems to help.

Cheers

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/19/2011 15:10:00 MST Print View

>> But now my hip starts hurting a bit, not only when I am hiking, but also when I have >down time,
>Just a thought. Walking is mostly a straight line action. The problem here is >apparently known, and the recommended solution seems to be stretching exercises for >the OTHER muscles around the hips. My wife found this out on the net, as we both >sometimes have the same problem. Seems to help.

Hi Roger, do you happen to have a few links to this info? Haven't taken any long treks but I do walk a lot outside of winter and I have this same problem once I get more than a few hundred miles behind me each year.

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Re: Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/19/2011 15:14:32 MST Print View

@Jim -- >>Hi Roger, do you happen to have a few links to this info? Haven't taken any long treks but I do walk a lot outside of winter and I have this same problem once I get more than a few hundred miles behind me each year.

I'm not Roger, but Wilderness Sports Conditioning has a full range of training tips for hiking, including how to get your hip muscles engaged...

Edited by jdw01776 on 02/19/2011 15:16:37 MST.

Stuart R
(Scunnered) - F

Locale: Scotland
Re: Re: its simple on 02/19/2011 15:24:49 MST Print View

"calories in calories out" is a truly unfortunate myth.

I'm sorry, but I disagree. A calorie IS a calorie.
What your body does with it is another matter. Is it glucose, amino acid or lipid? What's the current blood glucose? What are the glycogen stores like? Do you need it to burn or can it be stored?
Also, everyone has a different metabolic rate. And why do people eat in the fisrt place? Are they genuinely hungry, or are they just not full, or a bit bored? I think in many people the feedback loop between hunger and appetite is broken.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: It's not simple on 02/19/2011 15:38:47 MST Print View

Christine,
Drill down for doctors specializing in sports medicine. Start with coaches and trainers of professional teams. Look for physical therapists taking care of players. There are folks out there who have been observing for a long time, and if you can find them, you will also find some answers.

[By the way...do you have a purple zipper slider on your sleeping bag?]

Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Effect of long-term long-distance hiking on health on 02/19/2011 17:34:31 MST Print View

Greg,

I do have a purple zipper on my WM Ultralite bag - and I often tell the story of how I got it thanks to an incredibly nice guy on BPL... ;-) Thanks again for your help there.

My GP gave me the same advice on sports doctors - the only trouble is finding them, as doctors are not allowed to advertise in Germany. So finding a doctor with a certain specialisation can be a bit of a problem, but I will pursue it.

Also thanks for the advice on stretching the OTHER muscle groups. I will look into that more deeply.

Christine aka German Tourist