Get Outside and Hike – Doctor’s Orders!

By P. Glenn “Doc” Tremml, MD

I need to get outside before something terrible happens! Really.

Last year, I hiked three to four times per week for six months in preparation to thru-hike the 1,300 mile Florida National Scenic Trail, my first thru-hike. Having completed the feat last February and March in a little under a month, by the end I felt great (not tired), had no physical problems, and had a clear and relaxed mind.  During the six month preparation, I lost 10 pounds and another 10 pounds on the trail exactly as planned. During the thru-hike I was also able to taper off my medications for paroxysmal atrial fibrillation or intermittent “a-fib”, an electrical heart problem which sidelined my triathlon “career” the year before.

This improvement in health was not a surprise.  As an emergency physician, athlete, and former researcher in physiology, I knew that exercise and regular sleep, coupled with weight loss and the absence of stress would do wonders for my heart health, and mind, literally.  It did. Thanks Florida Trail!

Unfortunately for me, crises at work this past summer led me to take on increased responsibility and stress doubled my time at work. I immediately began gaining weight, developed insomnia, heartburn, and could never really relax.  My intermittent atrial fibrillation returned. Not only was I back on medication, but I also had to increase my medication dose to keep my a-fib under control. If I do not change course again, I am risking hypertension, diabetes, depression, premature death, and the biggest threat and worst fear of mine…stroke!

Good news.  Recently, my wife and I visited our son at college in New Hampshire. While there, we took a half-day hike on a section of the Appalachian Trail.  We wanted to see the fall foliage from a well-known overlook near the college.  The view was amazing.

After just one day in the woods, experiencing the gentle sights, sounds, and smells of nature while hiking along the hilly trail, that night, for the first time in a while, I felt whole and relaxed.

I am enlightened again. Upon returning home, I resigned from my additional responsibilities, and have committed to getting back outside more often.  It is all about the quality of life.

We probably all have some place locally, as well as across our great country, to get outside and hike.  Protecting, expanding, and experiencing these places will not only help us appreciate this amazing land we live in, but also make us healthier and happier, as science has shown.

There are many well-done studies confirming the benefits of exercise, specifically walking. Walking has been shown to decrease arthritis by 47%, and can prevent borderline diabetes from progressing to diabetes in 58% percent of people. Postmenopausal women who walk regularly have a 41% reduction in hip fractures. Walking reduces anxiety by 48%, depression by 30-40%, and in one-long term Harvard study, regular walking resulted in a 23% lower incidence of death during the study period.  Today, walking is considered the #1 treatment of fatigue.

Specifically being outdoors has also been looked at as well. Check out these articles:

  1. “Here’s Proof Going Outside Makes You Healthier” HuffPost
  2. “Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review.” J. Thompson Coon, Environmental Science Technology Letter
  3. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Camping In February Might Help” NPR Feb. 2017, citing research on circadian rhythms and natural light aiding in better sleep.

The bottom line – when I’m hiking in nature, I live in the moment and pay attention to the trail, both overhead and underfoot.   Many amazing moments grab my attention that make me feel truly alive and bring a smile to my face – whether an unusual bird, beautiful butterfly, unexpected wildflower, or an amazing color.

Read more about Dr. Tremml and his journey as a thru-hiker on the Florida Trail in “Grit On The Florida Trail”, Vero Beach Magazine, June, 2017: