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Exercise Option: Hiking

Fun Ways to Exercise When You Have Diabetes

You know you're supposed to exercise every day—30 minutes/day is the current recommendation. Especially for people with diabetes, exercise has so many benefits: it helps you keep your blood glucose levels under control, and it's a great way to release stress—just two examples for you. However, figuring out what kind of exercise to do can be challenging, so we're here to help with plenty of exercise suggestions. What about, for example, taking a hike?

We will share a primer on hiking and backpacking so that you may consider adding it to your list of activities.

Just to whet your interest:  you may be surprised to know that a person weighing 135 pounds, hiking with a 20-pound backpack for 4 hours at 3 1/2 mph will expend 1,358 calories, while a person weighing 150 pounds, carrying the same backpack for 4 hours at 2 mph, will burn up 1,200 calories. Sound appealing and like a great way to burn calories?

Hiking Benefits

The American Hiking Society lists many benefits to hiking. They state that hiking can:

  • stem heart disease
  • decrease hypertension by dilating blood vessels
  • decrease cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (the good cholesterol)
  • decrease weight by burning calories
  • slow the aging process by "using it so you don't lose it"
  • prevent the ageing of the immune system
  • help prevent osteoporosis by improving bone density
  • improve and maintain mental health by producing calming brain chemicals called endorphins, which are mild tranquilizer

Hiking also has several benefits specific to diabetes.  The Association claims that hiking can:

  • prevent and control diabetes by protecting the body from the degenerative effects of the disease
  • reduce the amount of insulin or oral agents needed
  • in the case of type 2 diabetes, help reverse the course of the disease through diet, exercise, and weight loss.

Hiking is said to improve osteoarthritis in the knees by strengthening leg muscles.  Also, since natural tranquillizing endorphins are generated, hiking may relieve back pain (here's a good article series on back pain from SpineUniverse, another of our sites, should you want to learn about other ways to relieve back pain).

Hiking forms healthy habits for a healthy life.

Planning a Hike

How do you plan a hike?

  1. First, decide with whom you want to hike. This is especially important for someone with a chronic disease like diabetes. If you have problems sharing your special needs, make sure you go with someone on whom you can rely. Do select people with similar interests and goals. You will most likely not start out climbing Everest. Also, make sure you get along well with these people, and that they really do wish to be included in a short trip at a slow pace. Hints of planning the hikes are to leave pets and younger children at home, as both are a distraction, and to limit the number of people on the hike.
  2. Next, you will need to decide on the general location of your hike. By this, we mean coastal, mountain, flats, etc., and what activities you want to do.
  3. Look at your route options which will include the terrain; trail conditions; length of the route; attractions and activities; distance from home; location of established camp sites; the weather; and restrictions, rules, and permits needed to hike at that site.
  4. Learn the rules of hiking, including trail markers and etiquette. All of these are readily available on the Internet.

For even short hikes, make sure that someone who's not on the hike knows where you're going and when to expect you back. You'll need to contact them when you arrive home safely, or you may find that they've alerted a search party. If the route needs a map, leave a copy with your contact person.

Hiking Equipment

What do you need in the way of equipment for hiking? There's no perfect list as different trips require different equipment and gear. Any list must, however, be based on comfort and safety.

If you have diabetes, essentials for any hike would include:

  • extra clothing
  • food and water
  • a first-aid kit
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
  • blood glucose testing kit
  • medications
  • carbohydrate snacks and/or medication to treat hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Carry extra snacks and medications

If you are not used to sustained exercise, you can be assured that sooner or later, hypoglycemia will catch up with you. Be prepared.

Depending on the hike, you will also want to carry a map in a water-proof container, compass, flashlight with extra batteries, matches in a water-tight case, fire starter, knife or multi-use camp tool, and water filter.

When choosing gear, look at performance; that is, make sure the item is reliable, effective, and EASY TO USE. Remember to think about weight and bulk, as you'll be carrying it. Cost is also important; make a budget and stick to it.

Now for the extras that regular hikers talk about with the other insiders. Pack something to hold your sunglasses. You will never have enough pockets. Buy cheap glasses for hikes as you don't want to loose your best pair.

Make sure someone has a head lamp for walking or reading in the dark and navigating trails after sunset.

Bring along a watch with a bright face.

Wear a brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face and the top of your head.

Try buying wool rag socks and liners. You can get a few wearings out of the socks, if you change the liners.

Buy a water-proof jacket with a hood in a suitable weight for any possible weather conditions. For example, you're going to hike a mountain trail, and it's a warm fall day. You've checked the weather before you left, and they forecasted the possibility of light rain in the afternoon. At higher elevations, that light rain could turn into sleet or snow. You can layer as needed; many of these jackets fold up to fit in a small backpack. A down-filled jacket is warm and fuzzy, and it makes a great pillow.

Extra Hiking Precautions for Diabetics

Now you have a place in mind, the length of the hike, your stopping points, camp site, gear, hiking companions, and you're ready to go.

Actually, not just yet.

Remember you have diabetes and you must take care beforehand so that your trip is not ruined. First, read the article in this issue on foot care.

You will need very comfortable hiking boots or shoes that you have broken in before the hike. Make sure your hiking companions(s) know that you have diabetes and are alerted to the signs of hypoglycemia.

Carry carbohydrate snacks to counter hypoglycemia.

Make sure you have sunscreen and that you dress according to the weather. For example, if it is quite hot, a wet scarf around your head, under your hat, will help cool you off.

Remember to stop for water and to drink often to avoid dehydration.

Talk to your health care team about any items they think you'll need, and get suggestions on the length and pace of your hike. Make sure you do stretches before starting out, and don't overdo it.

If you start slowly and realize the benefits from hiking—the beauty, tranquility, comradeship, and the just plain great air out there—soon you'll be starting your own hiking group and planning for more difficult and rewarding walks into the great outdoors.

Updated on: April 14, 2015
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