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Hiking & Diabetes

Setting off on a trail to better health

Even if you don’t like to “exercise,” you may find you enjoy hiking. That’s because for many people, hiking often feels more like a walk in the park than a workout. Sure, you may break a sweat as you trek uphill, but that extra effort has a direct reward when you take in the stunning views from the top. And there are other payoffs as well. Getting back to nature has a positive effect on the body and mind. Studies show that spending time in nature can increase feelings of vitality, and that outdoor exercisers tend to work out for longer than their indoor counterparts. All of this may add up to an effective, feel-good workout for people of nearly all abilities.

“Every hiker benefits from a boost in calorie burn. For people with diabetes, hiking can also help regulate blood sugar levels. Exercise generally does three positive things for people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes,” says Don Kain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Herold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health and Science University. “It burns blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, and, if you do enough of it, physical activity may help with weight loss and weight management following weight loss.”

Finding the Right Hike

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week for everyone, regardless of whether or not they have diabetes. “Hiking fits into that perfectly,” says Kain, “Hikes can be enjoyed anywhere there’s a trail – from national parks to a neighborhood nature preserve.” If you’re new to this activity, HikingBeginner.com recommends going with a partner, letting someone else know where you’ll be – and when you expect to return – and starting out with a reasonably short and level trail. “Because fitness levels vary so much from person to person, there is no specific length that is best, but starting at an ‘easy’ level trail is the most conservative – and most enjoyable – way to go,” adds Kain. There are lots of resources available to help you find a local trail, including books such as the Falcon Guides (order online or check out your local bookstore) and websites such as LocalHikes.com, which lets you enter a zip code and basic details about the sort of experience you’re looking for, from level of difficulty to the scenery you’d like to see, and provides trail possibilities in that area. You might also consider downloading one of the many hiking apps available before you go. The free app MapMyHike, for example, allows the user to map a hiking route, as well as log in the activity on its fitness tracker.

What to Bring

“A hiking pace is often slower than a walking pace – you may cover only two to three miles in an hour,” says Barry Shingle, a physical therapist and director of guest activities and fitness at Rancho la Puerta, “so a seemingly short hike may actually take a couple of hours. That’s why being slightly over-prepared for a hike makes sense.” Adds Kain, “Hiking is such an accessible activity, you don’t need much equipment – typically just boots, a backpack, and a short packing list that will vary some, depending on the type of hike you’ll be doing.” Some items will make the list, no matter what the terrain or duration of your hike:

Start with a comfortable backpack; then, if you typically use a blood sugar monitor, bring it along. “People living with diabetes who use blood sugar-lowering medicine should check their blood sugar prior to exercise,” says Kain. “Even if you only plan to go on a thirty-minute walk, carry carbohydrates with you. Some to consider: a small juice box, a piece of fruit, or some fast-acting glucose tablets. If you’re going out for longer than thirty minutes, check your blood sugar periodically during the hike and pack snacks that contain protein as well as carbs, such as crackers and peanut butter, fruits and nuts, or granola bars. Regardless of the length of your hike, pack more water than you think you need to prevent dehydration.”

Adds Shingle, “wearing sunscreen and packing an extra layer, such as a rain jacket, can help you on the trail too. If you have knee pain, you may want to try walking with hiking poles, which can take pressure off the joints. Break in hiking boots before wearing them on long hikes to ensure your feet stay comfortable and blister-free.” Other essentials for your pre-hike packing list include safety items – a flashlight, materials to make a fire, and a whistle – as well as a knife, a map, and a GPS or compass. Many smartphones have GPS capabilities and can be useful for staying in touch while you’re out on your walk.

Now that you’ve mapped out an appropriate trail, packed sensibly, and checked with your doctor (it’s always a good idea to do so before taking up a new physical activity), you’re ready to hit the trails. Take a big breath of fresh air and enjoy!

Jessica Cassity is a health reporter for SELF, Fitness, and Shape magazines, and the author of Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You. She is a Portland-based pilates and yoga teacher and blogs at thehappyandhealthyblog.com. Cassity is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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