Hiking 102: Stay in Shape for the Trail

*Photo taken at Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park. I took this photo during our hike up 600 stairs (at an altitude of about 4,000 feet from the bottom) to get to the top of the trail, a hike that would have been impossible if not for my regular exercise routine.

Hello, ducks. Winter probably has many of you hibernating, grouchy, sniffling, and feeling trapped by the cold and dark days. For the first time (maybe ever) I am sailing through winter this year. I think it’s because my doctor prescribed me vitamin D. It’s like I was living in black and white, and now I can see color. Have you ever seen those videos of people who try on the special glasses for color-blindness, or videos of people who are deaf and can hear after getting an implant? That’s how I feel this winter, thanks to vitamin D. Even without the vitamins, I still made a point of getting out to walk during the daylight hours every day. I learned years ago that living in the Northlands is unbearable for me if I don’t get outside for sunshine and fresh air. A lot of people use excuses about how icy it is, how cold, or that they can’t walk on unshoveled walks, but what I know about staying in decent shape is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Waiting for good weather, especially if you live in the North, means you are willing to sacrifice your muscles, your hard work, and your metabolism. Stop doing that to yourself. You deserve to feel good about your health. Make the time to stay in shape, make it non-negotiable, and start immediately. Excuses will not get you on the trail for fun.

Last week, I wrote about prepping for the trail with ideas about footwear, food, maps, and other various and sundry advice. This week, I hope to whip you into a sense of urgency about maintaining your bodily health all year long so you can always be ready to get out into the world and enjoy yourself. If a friend walked in the door today and asked if you wanted to go on a trip to sunny California to visit a National Park, you would probably want to go, right? Let’s say you get the tickets and go all the way to California, drive to Sequoia National Park, and then just when you think things are about to be fabulous, you find yourself wheezing on the edge of the trail while everyone else speeds past. Is that really how you want to live? Did you used to be a mountain biker in your 20s, and now you believe that because you have kids you don’t have time to get out and ride? Do you work a gazillion hours every week and come home wiped out every day, so you tell yourself you don’t have time for exercise? Stop feeding yourself stories. You are the only person in charge of your health, not your spouse or your kids or your best friend or your job. No one is going to get your body in shape to go out and enjoy the world except you. Do yourself a favor and choose to commit to a few minutes of time every day, every other day, or even just three days a week to get in shape. No matter what anyone says, this is not a thing you will ever regret. Being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is a wonderful way to be.

Here is what I know about being dedicated to consistent exercise: whenever I want to do an outdoor activity I enjoy, I am ready physically. The only thing that might stop me is whether or not I had a good night’s sleep. I eat to maintain my health as much as I exercise. This may sound like I’m a nutcase about staying on special diets and being a freak about getting to the gym. No. What I do is a simple behavioral routine. All week long, Monday through Thursday, I eat foods that nourish my body, no junk. I still eat chocolate every day, but only a little. Every morning I have my coffee, but only two cups. When I need salty food, I eat popcorn I pop myself. In general, I try to follow the Michael Pollan formula of eating food, not too much, mostly plants. Eating meat is something my body tends to require, so I eat it responsibly and mostly poultry and fish. I supplement with vegetarian meals now and then, too. Carbs, especially sugar of any kind, are off the table for the most part, except for brown rice, oat bran, and quinoa. Even though that may sound horribly boring, after eating this way for a while I have discovered that feeling energetic all the time is actually worth the sacrifice of being able to indulge in white foods that don’t give me anything but problems. On Friday night, I reward myself with ice cream, pizza, maybe some Thai food…a good meal I’ll really enjoy. Then on Saturday I might still allow for a little wiggling in the diet, and on Sunday I go back to eating well again. I find it makes a huge difference. Eat food that makes you feel good and stop eating garbage, and you will be amazed at the change in your mood, your energy, and your health.

Aside from diet, I take a no-nonsense policy to my exercise. Now that I have developed a habit of lifting weights every other day, I just make the time. You don’t have to go to a gym if you don’t want to spend the money, nor do you need to make it a big deal. Get some soup cans and do some flies while you watch TV, fill a couple of water jugs and do curls, start doing push-ups or squats, or even just some sit-ups will do wonders for your core. If you need encouragement, find a work-out buddy to keep you motivated. Try finding a group online to keep you honest. Keep a journal or mark your calendar. Do what you must to stick to it, because once you make it a habit, you’ll find it easier to keep going. If you need a reason, remind yourself that weight-bearing exercise tells your bones to be stronger so you are less likely to break them as you age. If you engage your entire skeletal structure, you are less likely to injure your back when lifting heavy things, or to injure body parts in general. Stretching before and after will also prevent injury during exercise, so make stretching part of the routine to save yourself some of the pain. Lots of programs out there can help with exercise from home, and depending on what you want, there are lots of choices. I have had good experience with DailyOm, which has some great yoga routines to keep you strong and limber (I like Sadie Nardini), and for strength training I had great success with DailyBurn. Both are low-priced options for streaming videos, and both have experts teaching their craft. The best way to get moving, I have found, is to do it first thing in the morning. If you start with a few squats, push-ups, and sit-ups (which you can do in less than 10 minutes), it gets you moving and jump-starts your metabolism. Start tomorrow. Why wait?

When you take the time to work your muscles and eat well, it means you get to have the freedom to live your life in whatever way makes you happiest. At any time, you can hop up and hit a trail, go for a bike ride, climb a mountain, go sledding, ski the slopes, or even just enjoy outside time with your kids. Imagine being able to keep up with your young children while they run around the back yard! Whatever your reasons for allowing yourself to make excuses, just stop. You can tell yourself the story that you don’t have time, but that’s not true. If your doctor told you that in order to keep yourself alive, you needed to start exercising daily, you’d find time. Well, the doctor’s orders are in: you need to exercise to keep yourself alive. Seriously, your body requires the exercise anyway, so you might as well make it fun. Get out on the trail even in winter. Buy snow shoes, learn to ski, go sledding, build igloos, get out and shovel the whole block (and make your neighbors happy), or find some other way to make snow fun. Instead of using your energy to complain about how you feel, go move your body. Get outside and find a place with a view of the snow right after it falls in the woods, see the mountains topped with white, or go for a picnic hike with hot food and drinks you bring in a thermos. If you have the right clothes to keep you warm, it will be a lot more pleasant.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to make year-long exercise a deal-breaker. Once you make the commitment to feeling good, you won’t ever want to go back to being a couch potato. Your excuses will melt away as soon as you realize how great your life can be when you embrace taking charge of your time and your health. If you love the woods in summer, love it in winter, too, and then when summer comes you won’t have to bust your can to get back into hiking shape. You’ll be ready to enjoy those gorgeous weather days in the early spring as soon as they happen. Imagine climbing a peak as soon as the buds appear on the trees, when the color is still bright lime-green, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and your hike is just as easy on this early spring day as the last day of summer fun. A few minutes a day can keep you there, but you have to be hungry for it. Magical thinking will not give you muscles or stop you from eating stale Christmas cookies. Oh, yes, I see you over there! I was you once. Trust me, I used to eat very badly in my younger years, but middle age has forced me to behave better. If you’re young, take care of yourself now. If you’re older, the sooner you keep what you have, the better. It will not get easier with age. Love yourself enough to do what you love. Get out there and enjoy the beautiful world while you make muscles, and treat exercise like a religion; your body is a temple.

P.S. If you might be interested in backpacking, but need some help deciding if it’s for you, I have a course for backpacking beginners. It’s called “Take a Hike!” and even if you’re a novice, you might find some useful stuff in there. I have it set up as a donation-based course, so you can pay as little or as much as you want. It delivers to your mailbox every day for a week, with all kinds of goodies about gear, meals, getting in shape, tents, animal encounters, and more. Here is the link to the page. Happy trails, my friends!


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