Santé & Sanity: 5 Health Benefits of Hiking (in St. Kitts & Nevis)

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St. Kitts & Nevis, West Indies is a beautiful small island (actually composed of two islands, St. Kitts and Nevis) where there are many places to catch breathtaking views of the island and the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea. During my stay there, I was recommended by a taxi driver that I’ve befriended to try hiking Mount Liamuiga, a volcano that has been dormant for centuries. I am not a big hiker so I was concerned that I would not be able to make it to the top since I’ve heard the volcano hike was a very strenuous one. Nonetheless, I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone and decided to sign up for the hike. Furthermore, I was motivated by the fact that the view at the peak, which is also the highest point on the island, was worth every step of the hike and hence was determined to reach the top. Of course, I did not try to conquer the volcano by myself, I invited my friends to join me. The company definitely made the hike up more worthwhile.

(check out the sun-soak video filmed at this island)

Hiking for the view and the company shouldn’t be the only reasons why you should hike. You should consider hiking because it is very beneficial for your health. Of course, it’s a very good way to exercise, but there is more benefits to hiking than what meets the eye. Below I have underlined five benefits of hiking.

#1 IMPROVE YOUR BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS

Hiking gives your muscles a great workout. But how do your muscles produce energy to keep you moving? From glucose (sugar)! As your energy demand increases, glucose will be moved from your bloodstream to supply your muscles. Your muscles will then use this glucose to make energy. So regular hiking can help you control, or even prevent, diabetes by lowering your blood sugar levels. As a matter of fact, did you know that hiking downhill is two times more effective at removing blood sugars and improving glucose tolerance? But don’t forget to always make sure to bring snacks with you on a hike! You do not want to deplete your building blocks for energy!

#2 GET LOTS OF OXYGEN

Do you get muscle cramps while exercising?  Muscle cramps are normally due to your muscles producing a chemical by-product called “lactic acid” in a process called “anaerobic glycolysis” (meaning “breakdown of glucose without air”). Normally, your muscles need oxygen to produce energy from glucose, but if your energy demand exceeds your oxygen stores and intake (such as in cases of long and intense workouts), then your muscles will start producing energy WITHOUT oxygen and a by-product of this process is LACTIC ACID, which makes your muscles cramp. What better way to replenish your oxygen stores than to be among oxygen-producing organisms from nature – Plants and trees!

#3 LOWER THE RISK OF HEART DISEASE

Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world (according to the World Health Organization statistics from 2016)? Hiking is a workout for your muscles but also your heart (which essentially is made up of muscles). A difficult hike, especially one with hills, obstacles such as rocks, fallen trees, water streams or mud, will force your heart to work harder. As your muscles need a significant amount of oxygen, your heart needs to pump blood faster to deliver oxygen to your muscles more rapidly. This type of cardio will improve your cardiovascular fitness and reduce the risk of heart disease. So go ahead and challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone.

#4 BUILD MUSCLE STRENGTH

When hiking, you’re not just walking on a flat surface, you’re taking on sharp inclines, climbing overs rocks, “limbo-ing” under fallen trees. This gives your whole body a workout. You’re also using different groups of muscles for the different “actions”. When hiking up, you’re mainly working out your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings as well as the muscles in your hips and lower legs. By using your arms or walking sticks that you can plant into the ground and propel yourself forward, you also push your upper body muscles to work harder and this gives you a stronger cardio workout.

As for the descent, you’ll be using those same muscles groups but in a different way and to a different extent. You rely on your quads much more during the descent as you’ll need more control over your steps and speed. Descents usually put a lot of strain on your knee joints, but planting the walking stick out in front of you as you walk can take a little pressure off your knee joints.

#5 REDUCE STRESS

Just being outside in nature can ease your stress. This all comes back to mindfulness: being in nature, being more aware of your surroundings, living in the moment and clearing your mind can help you feel more relaxed. Taking in deep breaths of fresh air is also very beneficial. As a matter of fact, taking deep breaths can help keep your stress under control as deep breathing increases blood flow back to your heart and hence increases blood flow to your tissues (e.g. organs, brain, muscles, etc.). In the long term, this can contribute to a lower blood pressure as high levels of stress is associated with high blood pressure.

Isabel Tran (medical student & soon to be doctor)