The Scenic Route to Weight Loss: Hiking as a Weight Control Tool
I don't want to convince you to lose weight
Before I even begin writing about anything related to weight loss, I need to write a disclaimer.
First of all – I am not a doctor. This article is not intended as a medical advice of any kind. It’s just bunch of musings on hiking, working out, health benefits of hiking and so on.
Second – I am not big on losing weight in general. I would never say to anyone that s/he needs to lose weight to get healthy. Quite the opposite! I find the push for losing weight dangerous and detrimental to actual healthy living.
Losing weight does not equal getting healthy.
Low body weight does not equal healthy.
Heavier bodies do not equal unhealthy and having some fat doesn’t mean one’s lifestyle is unhealthy.
Our bodies are complex machines and we should be gentle and sensible in how we treat them.
So what do I want to write about in this article if I’m not for weight loss?
I am a big fan of the “Healthy at Every Size” movement and support women of all sizes and fitness levels in the Outdoors. No weight loss is necessary before enjoying the wonderful benefits of hiking and camping.
But I know a lot of women do want to lose some weight and get in better shape. Actually, when I hear that someone wanted to lose weight, I hope that what they really meant was that they wanted to get healthier or fitter. Unfortunately, that's how it is often portrayed as it is not shown often enough that people with bigger bodies are quite often fit and healthy.
Sometimes we do want to also lose some fat around the belly or hips. Myself included. I put some fat on and although I don’t think there's anything wrong with it, I would like to get back to my size from about a year ago – if only to fit my old clothes.
So if there are women out there who would like to get into a bit more athletic shape, let’s find the best, the most healthy and safe way to do it, right?
Why not just starve myself to the shape I want?
Weight-loss diets don’t work – let’s state it loud and clear.
Not only that – they deregulate our bodies, make us feel miserable and are often simply dangerous. Our bodies need good, healthy fuel. And we should give it to them.
I’m so happy that I never got into dieting. I think the longest I ever been on any weight-loss diet was two days. Not long enough to do any significant damage or to feel miserable.
I can still listen to my body – because it is not completely messed up. If I feel like eating fish – I go and buy fish. Sudden chocolate cravings? I go and eat a whole bar of chocolate if that’s what my body seems to need.
No guilt, no self-hatred.
Food is fuel and I want to have a healthy relationship with it. There are no “clean” and “dirty” foods, there are no forbidden foods (unless you have a medical condition), there is no need to detox or flush out toxins from your body (that's what liver and kidneys are for) – just eat, be satisfied and enjoy one of the greatest pleasures we have in our life.
So maybe sweat it all out in a gym?
Why not doing some rigorous workouts in gym? Wouldn't that do the trick?
Maybe – for some folks.
I know it wouldn’t for me and many other people. With my anxiety and social phobias, I just can’t go to a gym.
I know there are many women who feel shy to go and exercise among strangers. I think it is particularly true with women who aren't confident, in a great shape or satisfied with the way their body looks. Some women might not feel like sweating out with men in presence.
And it’s so boring! It takes a lot of time and the only things you see around you are other sweaty people and some twisted iron. I just can’t see myself enjoying it.
I tried doing workouts at home over the past decade or so… I went on and off being hooked for a while and then stopping, mostly because of something going on in my life.
Two years ago I got into Shaun T’s “T25” workouts and later started “Insanity”. I highly recommend them for those who like exercising at home. I got stronger and fitter… but then summer came and I got off the wagon. And never got on again.
Hiking – the best workout ever?
Hiking helps me stay more-or-less fit while doing something I love, where the health-supportive benefits are basically the side-effects of the fact that I love to walk high up to see better views.
Hiking in rough terrain with a backpack on is a full-body exercise in the best way – natural, hitting every muscle of the body, bringing benefits to our cardiovascular system, pumping blood and oxygen throughout the body… and also burning calories like crazy.
You might think that hiking is only good for your legs but that is a mistake. If you use trekking poles - which I highly recommend - your arms and back work hard. Whenever I go first time after a break I can feel the burn especially in my triceps and forearm muscles.
When you hike with a heavier pack your back muscles work hard to hold it all. You don't work hard only when going up - going downhill is a hard workout, too! With every step your body is off balance and your whole core is engaged to keep balance. Your abs, obliques and back muscles work hard to hold your body up.
It is well known that adding out-of-balance exercises is extremely beneficial - that's why people use balance balls and similar tools to add a bit of uneven surface or to force the body to work in a non-symmetric way.
Hiking through hills, climbing boulders, walking over tree trunks or navigating narrow paths along muddy puddles is the best way to force every muscle in your body to work. And yes - you will feel sore in places you had no ideas you had muscles! That's the best functional workout - to make your body stronger to help you in every day tasks.
Hiking – a pleasant way to burn tons of calories
No matter how much I eat (and I really try to eat a lot of calorie-dense food when I hike), there will always be a deficit. Long hiking with uphill climbing and carrying heavy backpack over many hours a day burns hundreds of calories.
I don’t know how many calories exactly I burn during my hiking… but “a lot” is a pretty close to the number ;-) I found some online calculators and estimates on how many calories we burn during hiking.
Let’s take one of my most difficult hike from Montseny to Aiguafreda in Catalonia: about 27 km with a heavy backpack (about 17 kg) where about half of the distance was done on extremely steep and difficult path.
I hiked for about 8,5 h with only short (to catch my breath) breaks and one or two longer ones (about 10 min). According to the estimates I burnt at least 3000 calories, possibly closer to 4000. There is no way I could eat 5000 or 6000 calories that day to balance it all out.
Obviously on more regular hiking days I was doing 12 – 16 km and often in less steep or harsh terrain. Still, it was probably close to 2000 calories burnt a day.
When I returned from a month in Scotland last August, I was visibly thinner. I lost about 5 kg and 8 cm in waist.
When I went to Spain for two weeks I didn’t do any measurements so I have no idea how much weight I lost but I did lose some.
Hiking changes the way you look and feel about your body
What I like most in hiking – it’s not about losing weight. That is just a side effect of your body needing more fuel.
Your body is getting stronger; your muscles are getting bigger and more visible. Suddenly you start to notice the various muscles under your skin – where before there seemed to be just one, smooth mass. Fat starts to disappear and muscle definition is more and more visible.
One of the mistakes people who try to lose weight do, is just losing fat with no work for the muscles. Which means they are getting weaker!
Before their bodies had to work harder because they had more weight to move around. Now, their muscles have less work to do so they can get even smaller than before.
This is not a healthy approach.
Our bodies are to work for us, be strong, healthy and reach mountaintops. A lot of hard challenges in the mountains are easier for over-weight people than for weak under-weight folks or people who seem to have slim/average figures but hardly any muscles there (so called "skinny fat").
Rapid weight-loss is dangerous and has nothing to do with trying to get healthy.
What is also wonderful about hiking, is not only that your body gets to look stronger and more athletic, but you start to appreciate it more. You realize and accept how awesome it is, how much it can do for you - just as it is already. That it is enough.
You get a bit more gentle, understanding, and loving towards it.
Hiking changes our perception of our body from the look of it towards its achievements, fitness level, strength.
Which also means that you might realize you don't actually need to lose weight at all or not as much as you thought. That your body already is awesome and wonderful - just the way it is.
How hiking has changed my body
One of the things I've noticed was more definition in my muscles. I have basically no visible fat on my arms now. When I flex my arm you can see the muscles dancing under. My back is ripped. My legs are real tree-trunks: defined and strong. What I did not expect was also losing some cellulite on my butt and legs. I still have some (obviously, as it’s normal) but just tiny bumps.
I’m very far from looking slim or athletic. I have a lovely, soft cushion on my belly as well as on my buttocks. I don’t even want to be “slim”. I don't think I even can with my genetics. I want to be athletic, strong, and flexible. I want to use my body even better than I do now. I want to work on my stamina and strength so I can hike for longer than I can do now.
Take a look at what gear I use when I head off into the Wild:
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I know how crucial active life is to our health. But going to a gym is just not for me. My anxiety would eat me alive. I'm also pretty lazy and getting out of house is hard. I can’t find the motivation to do workouts at home… but hiking? I don’t feel I’m exercising; all the health benefits are just lovely side effects of enjoying hill walking.
So, if you are thinking of losing weight in a gentle, healthy way, eating all the good foods your body needs (rabbit food won’t get you through mountains – you need fats, proteins, calorie-dense foods) and enjoying beautiful Nature while doing so. Can there be any better way to help your health and to keep your weight in check?
So, how do I start with this hiking thing?
It all depends on your fitness level. If you are already pretty fit, moving around a lot, working around the house, working physically in your job, carrying your kids around all the time - you may push yourself a bit. But if you are just getting off your sofa, start slowly.
Do more walking in general and go for day hikes. Find a nice park not far from where you live, or, if you are lucky, hills and mountains. Start with a day pack and add more weight to it. Then go for a long weekend hike, staying at a hut, mountain shelter or a campsite overnight. Then add some more weight to your pack, go for longer treks, use your vacation time for long-term treks. Don't push yourself too much too early on.
Make sure you drink a lot of water and eat properly. Don't combine hiking with dieting - you need to provide your body with healthy fuel. For a day hike grab snacks rich in healthy fats and proteins: jerky, cheese, nuts, seeds, oats, dark chocolate etc.