Group Mountain Hiking is the Best Medicine

IMG_4928 We have all heard the following:

Laughter is the best medicine.  Happiness is the best medicine.  Knowledge is the best medicine.  Prevention is the best medicine. Nutrition is the best medicine.  Medicine is the best medicine.

I will now make the case for the best of the best:

Group Mountain Hiking is by far and away the best medicine on earth.

Yup.  This is a bold statement, I know.

Obviously, the type of medicine one uses, largely depends upon the condition that one is taking the medicine for, which ultimately determines its quality for achieving premier status as the "best medicine".  However, if I could pick just one therapy that would help the greatest number of people regarding preventive health and achieving optimal wellness, it would be group mountain hiking.

Let's first start off with science-based perspectives.

A 2012 study done in Austria, showed that group mountain hiking was associated with an improvement in hopelessness, depression, and suicidal ideation in patients suffering from high-level suicide risk.

If intense mental illness as seen in high-risk suicidal patients can be improved with group hiking, imagine what it can do for people who are feeling a bit blue or a bit stressed?

In a 2013 study, again done in Austria, suicidal patients who were hiking 2-3 hikes per week, 2 - 2.5 hours per hike for 9 weeks in a row, showed significant improvement in maximal exercise capacity and aerobic capability.  However, inflammatory biomarkers like cytokines were unchanged during this hiking experiment.  Cytokines are elevated in many disease states including suicidality, but at least these biomarkers did not worsen.

A third Austrian study in 2003, showed that people with metabolic syndrome (central obesity) who hiked for 3 weeks at a moderate altitude of 1700 m, not only showed the expected reduction in body fat and body mass, they also showed a stimulation of erythropoietin (EPO).  How about that?  A natural and legal way to blood dope in order to get more oxygen to all of the tissues.

And this last study, again in Austria, showed those with metabolic syndrome had physically adapted to moderate altitude (1500 - 2500 m) by displaying an increase in EPO as well as a shift in the oxy-hemoglobin curve to the right.  This means that there was improved oxygen transport to the tissues in these people.

Ya gotta love the mountains in Austria.

There is an undeniable association between exercise and great health.  There are oodles of scientific studies showing everything from being able to grow new brain cells with exercise, to being able to reduce the risk for developing some types of cancers.  And of course, the beneficial effects of exercise on cardiovascular health are well documented, as are the improvements in musculoskeletal flexibility, balance, and overall strength.

There is something called grounding, which is the contact of the human body with the surface of the earth.  A study called, "Earthing (Grounding) the Human Body Reduces Blood Viscosity - a Major Factor in Cardiovascular Disease'', shows that contact with the earth's surface can prevent the blood from becoming thick, as seen in atherogenic disease.  Less viscous blood means better oxygenation to all of the tissues in the body.

During mountain hiking, there is constant contact with the earth:  hiking poles digging into the earth with each footstep on the ground;  hands touching rocks in order to balance over scree;  and hands grabbing for branches and trees when necessary.  Mountain hiking is the most supreme form of grounding.  Oxygenation, oxygenation, oxygenation.

Even though I could find no affirmative studies showing the beneficial effect of negatively charged ions in fresh air on health, there must be something in mountain air to give one the experience that John Denver describes as a Rocky Mountain High.  It must be more than just natural blood doping in the brain created by an increase in EPO, that gives one a natural high.  It must be more than just the increase in feel-good chemicals like endorphins and enkephalins typically seen with exercise in general, that gives one a natural high.  There must be something special in mountain air . . .

IMG_5548Of course there are risks associated with mountain hiking:  bears, cougars, dehydration, exhaustion, hypothermia and injury.  For the most part, all of these can easily be mitigated with preparedness and awareness.

From an anecdotal point of view, this is what I can tell you regarding my own experience and what I have heard others say:

Group mountain hiking is the greatest reliever of stress that exists.

The socialization aspect of this activity helps improve mental health.  Hiking with people who love the same activity, stimulates connection, laughter and communication.  Socialization while walking, lightens the load and keeps us light on our feet. IMG_5539

Group mountain hiking also provides for long periods of quiet meditative silence, where each step, step, step, personally takes me deeper into myself and deeper into my surroundings.

Each step, step, step, is a walking meditation that releases every morsel of held-on tension in my body, directly into the earth.  Each step, step, step, releases every stress-filled thought entwined in my brain cells, directly into the air and trees that kiss my skin.  And when the last bit of stress trickles out into my sweat, it is the mountains that surround me that can bare any further load I give up to it.

DSC04236Thank you Mother Nature for embracing our woes and tensions.

After one of our usual 4 - 7 hour hikes that typically consists of elevation climbs between 500 - 1300 meters, I remember one hiker telling me that the stress release he experiences keeps him going for about 4 days, after which point he starts to come down from his high.

During times that I am not experiencing any challenging stresses in my life, I'm pretty much on cloud nine the whole trip.  At other times, if I have been extremely stressed during the week, it takes about 1 -2 hours of step-step-stepping, going up-up-upward into the mountains, where Mother Nature cleanses my soul.  After that, I can relax into my usual mountain high experience.

IMG_5492Finally, for me personally, group mountain hiking is the most wonderful family experience that I partake in.

Group mountain hiking is indeed the best medicine!

Thank you Mother Nature for your exquisite display of beauty.

I rest my case: