Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hike to overcome obesity - getting started is half the battle

Followers of this blog know that just three years ago I weighed 420 pounds. I hated the idea of doing cardio, especially on a treadmill at the gym, so I adopted two dogs to motivate me to get out of the house and walk. At first, it was a challenge to make even a tenth-of-a-mile loop in the dog park without losing steam. In time, I worked up to a dog-park mile. But short loop walks in the park soon became as tedious as the dreaded treadmill. So a little more than a year ago, I decided I would venture beyond the dog park to trails unknown.

The rescue dogs that rescued me; Remington and Diego in Cat Rock Park
Once I finally decided I wanted to try hiking, fear and anxiety set in. As much as I knew I wanted to hike, simply considering the actual hike got me nervous. My mind raced with doubt. Was I in good enough shape to handle a hike in the woods? What if I fell or simply was unable to handle the trail? How much water would I need? Would I need food? And if so, would eating extra food on the trail put the breaks on my weight loss? There were so many things to consider that apprehension almost stopped me in my tracks before I had even made any!

You won't know if you don't try

I had to weigh the pros and cons. What would I be missing out on if I didn't give it a go? What was I losing all this weight for if I wasn't going to get out and live life the way I'd always dreamed? This worry is ridiculous, I remember thinking. I had to stop being crippled by the fear that still surrounded me as a blanket even as I was shedding all those pounds!

I'd hiked when I was in high school and college, but 15 years and a 200 pound weight gain did a lot to change me. Part of the reason I moved to suburban Massachusetts was to get back into hiking. The week I arrived in the town of Weston, I learned there was a conservation area nearby called Cat Rock Park. The park had several trails and featured a beautiful pond as well as an abandoned ski slope with a meadow that ran the length of its 300-foot elevation gain. As if it couldn't get any better, the payoff of the hike would be the bald granite cap, the so-called Cat Rock, where one could see out over the park all the way to Cambridge Reservoir.

Miss out on this? No way! (Hobbs Pond, Cat Rock Park, Weston, MA)
It sounded like a dream - exactly what I was looking for. Still, without doing some due diligence it also sounded to me as if it were beyond my current capabilities. I decided to start by calling the local parks and recreation department to find out more. When I called, I learned that a local writer had painstakingly described each of the trails within the town's conservation lands. The hike I was considering was included in his book, Walks on Weston Conservation Land, published by the Weston Forest & Trail Association, and there was a map available, too.

I read the description of the trail and pored over the map to find out exactly how long the trail was and the exact elevation of Cat Rock. Once I knew what to expect I felt much more confident. I found that there were several loop trails, varying in length from less than a mile to up to five miles, so I planned my route accordingly. I also learned that the elevation gain was much gentler coming up the back side of Cat Rock hill, so I planned to take that route my first time round.

The hike I chose to start out on was perfect for me - it was what guide books call "easy". And while I didn't see it that way at the time, I soon found it to be true. I made that first hike. Then I did it again. Soon, after just a week walking Cat Rock Park I was seeking out more difficult routes in the nearby Middlesex Fells and Blue Hills. Two months later I was climbing Mount Monadnock, a mountain in southern New Hampshire featuring a 4-mile out-and-back hike with a 1,300 foot elevation gain. Knowledge melted my fears and, before I knew it, I was a hiker!

Thinking "I can do this, I can do this!" as I hike Mount Monadnock
If you're reading this thinking, "Wow, I wish I could overcome my fears and get out there and hike, too". Then follow these tips to get you started:

1. Know where you're getting into

The lesson here is, do your research. There are lots of free resources online, but the best information on your local trails can be found locally. Go online and find a detailed guide book for trails in your area. Or better yet, go to a local small bookstore to look for a guide book that might not be available online. Check with the local business, like outdoor outfitters, or the chamber of commerce. Call local government offices, like the parks and recreation or conservation management office, to see if they can provide you with detailed trail maps. If you are lucky enough to live near wilderness areas, check with your local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S Forest Service office. Look for resources that include mileage as well as elevation gain. And seek out trail descriptions, too. Once you know the name of the trail just Google it. You'll find many resources, like my blog HikeyHikey!, that include stories and helpful hints from hikers who have already trod the same trail you're planning to take.

2. Assess your physical condition

Another thing to do before setting out on the trail is to consider your physical condition. Obese people can - and do - hike. So you don't have to reach a certain weight before you head out on the trail. More than anything, a strong core will help you no matter what your current weight. Strong legs are important, but the core helps you maintain balance and footing over rocky paths. Personally, I had been working out with a medicine ball for more than a year before I started hiking, so I was confident that I had the physical wherewithal to handle a two-mile hike with only moderate elevation gain. The key is to work your way up to the hike by walking progressively distant routes - and doing some strength training wouldn't hurt. For tips on getting started using the medicine ball, check out this MyFitLife2Day post on my basic medicine ball workout.

Before that first hike, I was also concerned I might not have the respiratory endurance to handle the hike I was planning. If you are worried that you haven't been doing lots of cardio, remember you can take frequent breaks when you're on the trail, and don't be afraid to do so. If the guide book tells you it's a one-hour hike, you might want to tag on an extra hour if you plan on taking your time. That's what I did - and I still do. Just plan accordingly and don't get caught out on the trail after dark. It's best to go early in the day when you're just getting started.

3. Get the gear you need

Knowing you have the right gear is just as important as knowledge of what you're getting into and what you're capable of. For most hikes of less than five miles, low-top trail shoes are sufficient. You don't want to use your regular running shoes or cross trainers - you need something with grip, especially if you live in an area where trails are rock-strewn, which most of the good trails are. And if you're more 75 pounds overweight, I would recommend a hiking boot with more ankle support and stiff soles. You'll also want a backpack that distributes the weight of what you're carrying well. It should ride with most of the weight on your hips and fit snugly to your back. This will help you maintain balance and reduce the risk of back injury.

4. Hydrate!

Before you hike you should chug some water even if you're not thirsty. And no matter how far you're planning to hike, you definitely need to carry water with you. For a two-mile hike one liter of water should be enough, unless you live in a desert region, in which case you should carry two. For longer hikes you might want to invest in a backpack that holds a water bladder with a sipping tube. This way you don't have to stop every time you need a drink - which is often on the trail. Dehydration can lead to dizziness and exhaustion, and it can diminish your capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. I typically carry three liters of water for any hike of five miles. I will carry a fourth liter if I do a ten mile hike. Water is heavy to carry, but in my opinion it's better to be safe than sorry. Plus, I figure the more weight I carry the more calories I burn!

5. Fuel your body

Speaking of burning calories - you would be surprised by how many calories you burn while hiking. For more information on that, click here. This being the case, it is important to up your caloric intake before, during and after the hike to ensure your body remains fueled. I usually take along a banana and an apple, two carrots and a stalk of celery as well as a granola bar.

I don't always eat all of the food on the trail, but I know it's important to have it in case I need it. I usually have my next meal pre-cooked and waiting for me in the fridge at home, too, so I don't go into binge mode when I get back to the house. This happens especially if I'm being frugal with my food intake before and after a hike. Remember, food is fuel, so eat before you need it, not once your body is starved for nutrition.

6. Believe in yourself, but be cautious

The hardest part about hiking is believing that you have the ability to climb mountains, to reach the summit. Believe it or not, anyone in moderate physical condition can handle hikes classified as "easy" to "moderate" in most guide books. Start slowly to test out your abilities and to help you build confidence. Then, as your confidence increases, it will become easier to believe in yourself, and that will in turn take you farther on the trail than you thought or could have imagined. But unless you get out there and do it, how will you ever know what you're capable of?

Be optimistic, and also be prepared for contingencies. Don't hike alone. Make sure you leave your trip plan with someone - tell them where you're going and how long you plan to be. This way, if you don't come back in the time expected they can contact someone who can help find you in case of an emergency.

I don't say this to scare you. In fact, my goal in writing up this post is to convince you that you can do it. But it is important to understand that even the fittest hiker can encounter the unexpected while out on the trail. As such, you should know the weather conditions in the area where you will be hiking. Oh, and prepare for any sudden changes changes in weather, like rain or thunderstorms, drops in temperature and the like. Also, pack a change of socks if you think your shoes may get wet and a long-sleeve shirt if you're hiking on a crisp, cool autumn day, for example.

Now, get out there and do it!

By the way, I'm not the only person on a journey to overcoming obesity who is hiking to overcome obesity. Check out the amazing In It To Win It blog by my fit-life friend, Laina Harris. And for more information on setting goals to increase your level of conditioning for longer and more intense hikes, check out my blog Man of Merit.

1 comment:

  1. Yes indeed Brian... Hiking has certainly changed my life. It really cemented my belief in myself...and blew past my perceived limitations I placed on this weight loss journey. I can do so much more than I thought! I know I will win this fight...one trail at a time!