Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Let your legs be your doctors and hike for your life!

Below is the script of a motivational talk I delivered recently at the Palm Springs Toastmasters Club. The speech, titled "Hike for your life!", relates my personal story of how I started walking and hiking to fuel my journey of overcoming super obesity. 

“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” This quote by British Historian G.M. Trevelyan sums up the primary reason I took up hiking.

You see, four years ago, I weighed 420 pounds. At more than twice my normal weight, I was morbidly obese. My Body Mass Index or BMI – a common measure used to determine medical risk due to obesity – was estimated at 56. To put this into perspective, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 30 BMI is the low range of Class I obesity. At 56 BMI, I was Class III.

I was considered pre-diabetic. I had circulatory and breathing problems. Cellulitis – a bacterial skin infection common among the super obese – was forming at my ankles and traveling up my legs. On top of this, I was suffering from depression and felt hopeless to break a terrible addiction to sugary and fatty foods.

But this story has a happy ending. And today, I would like to tell you a bit of my own story of recovery, and share with you how, by putting my two legs to work as my doctors, I may have quite literally saved my life.

After I lost my social services job to budget cuts in 2008, I was unable to get private health insurance because I was considered too high of a risk. I decided I needed to take immediate and drastic measures to improve my conditions myself. If not, I feared wouldn’t live to celebrate my 40th birthday.

My fears were not unfounded. According to the National Institutes of Health, I was at a substantial risk of developing a slew of deadly obesity-related diseases. Based on all evidence, I needed to get control of my eating habits and begin getting regular exercise if I wanted to stay alive.

Not knowing where to start, I did some basic research. I came across a document called the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the report, I found that aerobic activity is key for weight loss and the prevention of weight gain.

In fact, aerobic activity also lowers risk of obesity-related diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. It also treats metabolic syndrome and may help prevent certain types of cancer. In short, engaging in regular aerobic activity lowers your risk of early death.

That’s exactly what I was looking for! And the evidence is pretty hard to ignore. Upon further research, I learned that walking is the primary aerobic activity recommended by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for people struggling with obesity.

So what did I do? I started walking!

Let me tell you, it was work to start moving that super obese body. And honestly, I found the work boring, tedious even. Fortunately, though, I experienced an immediate drop in weight as I began eating right and getting regular exercise. And this I did not find boring at all.

So I stuck with the walking and, as my health improved, I began seeking out longer and more difficult routes for my walks. Soon, and almost organically, I discovered and fell in love with hiking.

While walking can be done anywhere, even on a treadmill, hiking involves getting out into nature, climbing hills and experiencing views. Hiking, to me, feels much less like exercise and more like adventure. Plus, hiking is much more aerobically intense than mere walking. To put it plainly, hiking is walking on steroids.

It turns out, in fact, that hiking is more than great aerobic exercise; hiking has anaerobic and psycho-spiritual benefits as well.

As my research led me out onto the trails, I would find that hiking brings muscles to the point of exhaustion and builds them up stronger. This is anaerobic exercise, and anaerobic exercise makes the whole body stronger, also improving bone density.

According to fitness promotion web site, hiking is an excellent workout for the muscles of your lower body and core. The primary muscles worked include the quadriceps and hamstrings, the coordinating muscles of your upper leg; your calves, which push blood from your lower extremities back up to your heart; your glutes and hips; and your abs. If you carry a pack, your shoulders will build muscle over time as well, as you further strengthen your core.

An added benefit of building a strong core through hiking as an anaerobic workout has been reduced pressure on my spine. The back pain that was a consequence of carrying extra bulk is gone. I’m stronger than ever before, and I feel like I got back 15 years of my life – I feel 26, not 41!

I mentioned earlier that hiking has psycho-spiritual benefits as well. To me, this means even as hiking builds a stronger body it cleanses the mind and refreshes the soul.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recognizes that increased physical activity, such as hiking, reduces depression and leads to better cognitive function. Hiking may even improve the quality of your sleep. It may be as simple as the chemical reaction of endorphins being released into your blood stream during physical exercise that causes a sense of wellbeing while hiking. But it is also something outside the body, too, that sparks an inner peace while out on the trail.

Finding yourself in nature heals the soul. Vistas clear the mind and provide much-needed perspective when the stress of day-to-day living sets in. And each component of nature – the smells, the sights and the sounds – calm and soothe rattled nerves.

For transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau it was his beloved lake Walden. He wrote: “A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” For me, it is the summit of any hill or mountain. I tend to tell people, perhaps less eloquently than Thoreau, that I hike for the payoff. It is the views, and the feelings that come from pushing my body to new limits in the cathedral of nature, that bring about small bursts of lasting moments of rapture.

Imagine, feelings of rapture, and all you have to do is strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, grab a bottle of water and some trail mix, and make tracks to the nearest trail head. Regardless of your current fitness level, you can find a trail nearby where you can immediately start receiving the benefits of hiking.

So I challenge you. Sometime in the next week, get out there, try for yourself and see if what I’m telling you is true. I promise that soon, you too will credit your legs as your doctors as you hike for your life!

If you are interested in having me speak to your organization or at an event, leave a comment below. You may also follow me on Twitter @MyFitLife2Day, and check out my blog MyFitLife2Day, which charts my ongoing journey of overcoming super obesity. The video below is the above speech as delivered at a Toastmasters club in Southern California.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hiking for outdoors fitness - basic tips for getting started safely

Hiking is an outdoors fitness activity with growing popularity around the globe. Hiking is a great exercise to to help you lose weight, get fit and stay in shape. Plus, it is appealing to many in today's age who may be seeking to escape from the buzz of the technology-driven modern world we live, even if only for a couple of hours.

Outdoor fitness is a great way to reconnect with all that is real. It gives the feeling that we, as human beings, can still somehow live in balance with the natural world.

Hiking is a great outdoors fitness activity - but plan ahead to hike safely!
Taking to the trail, though, requires planning and preparation. Here in Southern California, the rash of mountain rescues for hikers suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration - not on wilderness trails but on hiking trails close to urban populations - seems to be rising along with the increase in hiking's popularity. Is this evidence that even fairly fit people may not be putting enough thought into what is needed when exercising in the great outdoors?

Don't be one of the statistics. If you're a novice hiker or someone who is interested in getting started with an outdoors fitness routine that includes hiking, these five tips will help you stay safe while setting out on the trail.

1. Know what you're getting into

Not all trails are the same, and distance is not the only factor to consider when selecting a suitable trail for your outdoors fitness hiking. The lesson here is, do your research. There are lots of free resources online, but the best information on your local trails can be found locally. Go online and find a detailed guide book for trails in your area. Or better yet, go to a local small bookstore to look for a guide book that might not be available online.

Check with the local business, like outdoor outfitters, or the chamber of commerce. Call local government offices, like the parks and recreation or conservation management office, to see if they can provide you with detailed trail maps. If you are lucky enough to live near wilderness areas, check with your local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S Forest Service office.

Look for resources that include mileage as well as elevation gain. And seek out trail descriptions, too. Once you know the name of the trail just Google it.  You'll find many resources, like my blogs HikeyHikey! and Man of Merit, that include stories and helpful hints from hikers who have already trod the same trail you're planning to take.

2. Assess your physical condition

Another thing to do before setting out on the trail is to consider your physical condition. You don't have to be in perfect shape before hitting the trail. Overweight and obese people can - and do - hike. So you don't have to reach a certain weight before you head out on the trail. But know your limits, and start off slowly.

More than anything, a strong core will help you no matter what your current weight. Strong legs are important, but the core helps you maintain balance and footing over rocky paths. Personally, I had been working out with a medicine ball for more than a year before I started hiking, so I was confident that I had the physical wherewithal to handle a two-mile hike with only moderate elevation gain, which is what I started with. Within two months, though, I was hiking my first mountain!

The key is to work your way up to the hike by walking progressively distant routes - and doing some strength training wouldn't hurt. For tips on getting started using the medicine ball, check out this MyFitLife2Day post on my basic medicine ball workout.

Before that first hike, I was also concerned I might not have the respiratory endurance to handle the hike I was planning. If you are worried that you haven't been doing lots of cardio, remember you can take frequent breaks when you're on the trail, and don't be afraid to do so. If the guide book tells you it's a one-hour hike, you might want to tag on an extra hour if you plan on taking your time. That's what I did - and I still do. Just plan accordingly and don't get caught out on the trail after dark. It's best to go early in the day when you're just getting started.

3. Get the gear you need

Knowing you have the right gear is just as important as knowledge of what you're getting into and what you're capable of. For most hikes of less than five miles, low-top trail shoes are sufficient. You don't want to use your regular running shoes or cross trainers - you need something with grip, especially if you live in an area where trails are rock-strewn, which most of the good trails are. And if you're carrying a heavy pack or are more 75 pounds overweight, I would recommend a hiking boot with more ankle support and stiff soles. You'll also want a backpack that distributes the weight of what you're carrying well. It should ride with most of the weight on your hips and fit snugly to your back. This will help you maintain balance and reduce the risk of back injury.

4. Hydrate!

Before you hike you should chug some water even if you're not thirsty. And no matter how far you're planning to hike, you definitely need to carry water with you. For a two-mile hike one liter of water should be enough, unless you live in a desert region, in which case you should carry two. For longer hikes you might want to invest in a backpack that holds a water bladder with a sipping tube. This way you don't have to stop every time you need a drink - which is often on the trail. Dehydration can lead to dizziness and exhaustion, and it can diminish your capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. I typically carry three liters of water for any hike of five miles. I will carry a fourth liter if I do a ten mile hike. Water is heavy to carry, but in my opinion it's better to be safe than sorry. Plus, I figure the more weight I carry the more calories I burn!

5. Fuel your body

Speaking of burning calories - you would be surprised by how many calories you burn while hiking. For more information on that, click here. This being the case, it is important to up your caloric intake before, during and after the hike to ensure your body remains fueled. I usually take along a banana and an apple, two carrots and a stalk of celery as well as a granola bar.

I don't always eat all of the food on the trail, but I know it's important to have it in case I need it. I usually have my next meal pre-cooked and waiting for me in the fridge at home, too, so I don't go into binge mode when I get back to the house. This happens especially if I'm being frugal with my food intake before and after a hike. Remember, food is fuel, so eat before you need it, not once your body is starved for nutrition.

Ready? Then, get out there and do it!

Are you ready to join the thousands of new hiking enthusiasts taking to the trails around the globe? Are you ready to engage in hiking as the phenomenal outdoors fitness activity is? Are you ready to stay safe while getting great exercise to to help you lose weight, get fit and stay in shape? Then get out there and do it! Just make sure you're prepared and you'll be fine.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hiking Palm Springs - Museum Trail - It's a real butt burner!

For many visitors, Palm Springs is a place of indulgence. Sure, there are the spas and golf clubs, which give this place the air of healthful tourism. But fine restaurants, bars and night clubs line the streets, so after an evening of excess many folks find they are in need of a rigorous workout. Fortunately, hiking trails abound out here in the desert, and some are accessible within walking distance of downtown.

Rising from Palm Springs, the prominent peak of Murray Hill in the distance
One such trail is the Palm Springs Museum Trail. Don't be fooled by the distance - at only two miles out-and-back one might mistake this trail for a walk in the park. In fact, it is a real butt-burner. Dozens of short switchbacks take you up a ridge line a full 1,000 feet in just one mile. Once you reach the top you will be rewarded with some amazing views. 

Watch for the white dots; staying on trail helps prevent erosion
To find the trailhead, go to the iconic Marilyn Monroe statue on Palm Canyon Drive, turn up Tahquitz Canyon Drive toward the mountain, go one block, then turn right on North Museum Drive. Pass the Palm Springs Art Museum, turn left, into the museum's north parking lot, and drive to the back corner. There it is! 

These red-spined, white-tipped barrel cacti dot rocky slopes along the trail
It takes about an hour to reach the top of the Palm Springs Museum Trail. Then it's a quick 25 minutes or so to reach the bottom again. White dots on boulders will show you the way. There are a lot of social trails that crisscross the main trail, cutting the switchbacks, but taking these will increase erosion and may eventually cause the trail to be closed. 

This hike has major payoff, so make sure to stop and enjoy to view!
If you're ready for more once you reach the summit, the Palm Springs Museum Trail links with the North Lykken Trail just past the summit. You can follow the North Lykken Trail to the left or the right for as long as you like - just be sure to retrace your tracks back to the trailhead. Or, you can try this alternate loop back to your starting point. Go left when you reach the North Lykken Trail and you will eventually reach the trailhead on Ramon Road. There, you can take Ramon to Cahuilla and turn left (or Palm Canyon if you don't mind looking like a sweaty mess as you walk down Palm Springs' main drag) and return to the art museum where you started. This loop is approximately 3.5 miles.

Palm Springs Museum Trail - don't be fooled by the trail's dainty name
So, are you ready to try the Palm Springs Museum Trail? Here are the stats:

Trailhead: Northwest corner of the north parking lot of the Palm Springs Art Museum
Distance: 2 miles, out-and-back
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,000/1,000
Map: You don't need a map for this trail, but I recommend you buy the new Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Trail Map online at the Friends of the Desert Mountains Gift Shop.
Hiking Time: About 1.5 hours out-and-back.
Best Times to Hike: This hike can be brutal in the summer, so if you do it then make sure you go super early in the morning. Fall through spring it's a great hike any time of day; still, it's best to do it early in the morning or in the evening just before the sun tucks away behind San Jacinto Peak. In the evening, take a head lamp just in case - the sun sets hard out here in the desert.
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous. Though it's short, it is a real butt buster!

Getting caught on the trail after dark can be dangerous; carry a light!
I hope you enjoy the Palm Springs Museum Trail. If you try it out, let me know. Leave me a comment below! I love to hear from my readers and promise to respond to all comments. Also, to read more about outdoor adventure, check out my blog Man of Merit. For more fitness-related reading, check out MyFitLife2Day. Lots of pics and useful info on both! Oh, and while you're at it, follow me on Twitter @myfitlife2day

Happy hiking!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hiking Santa Monica Mountains - Sandstone Peak, Malibu

If you're looking for a great hike with incredible views within close proximity to Los Angeles - a hike that feels far from the crowds of Hollywood but is closer than you might think - you've got to check out the Sandstone Peak Trail.

Sandstone Peak Trail is well-defined, rocky and steep

Sandstone Peak is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, known by the National Parks Service as SAMO. Located just beyond Malibu's shores, this is the low-key, paparazzi-free playground of the stars. Hike any of SAMO's trails and you are likely to run across a celebrity, though you probably won't realize it. This is a place where the stars are free to act just like the rest of us - enjoying the great outdoors, dressed in comfortable clothes, wearing a hat to block the sun, and hiking for fun and fitness.

Plenty of parking at the Sandstone Peak Trail Head

View of Sandstone Peak as seen from the beginning of the trail
There are two popular trails that reach Sandstone Peak from trail heads along the scenic (yet sea-sick inducing) Yerba Buena Rd. The long route, which starts at the Mishe Mokwa trailhead (where you can also catch part of the Backbone Trail), meanders through some scenic country, stretching out the 1,100-foot elevation gain over the course of 6 miles. The quick route from the Sandstone Peak Trail Head is shorter, but it's steep, and a real butt burner. I wouldn't doubt if Kim Kardashian herself has done some time on this trail to keep those famous curves high and tight!

View of the trail head parking on Yerba Buena Rd., from Sandstone Peak Trail
If you're thinking about checking out this trail, I can tell you it's definitely worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California. Here are the stats for the quick route:

Trailhead: Parking lot is at 2,030 feet elevation, accesible on Yerba Buena Rd. From Pacific Coast Highway, turn at Ned's Net restaurant onto Yerba Buena and go five or so miles. TH is a mile or so past the Circle X Ranch headquarters office. From Highway 101, take Route 23 south (Westlake Boulevard) to Mulholland Highway. Turn right. Go a mile (maybe less) and turn right onto Little Sycamore Canyon Drive. This turns into Yerba Buena. Pass the Mishe Mokwa TH on the right and soon you will reach the Sandstone Peak TH. You can also take the Mishe Mokwa Trail for a 7-mile loop, reaching the peak after 6 miles.
Distance: 3 miles, out-and-back
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,100/1,100
Map: You don't need a map for this trail, but I recommend picking up a free map from the gorgeous new visitor's center at Gillette Ranch. Get off the 101 at Lost Hills Road and go south to Mulholland and turn left, or from the Pacific Coast Highway take Malibu Canyon Road north to Mulholland and turn right. Gillette Ranch is on the south side of Mulholland Highway.
Hiking Time: On a recent hot summer hike, it took me 1.5 hours round trip, but it can probably be done in less time. I hung out for a while at the summit to take in the amazing 360-degree view, including the Channel Islands to the south, Oxnard Plain to the west, San Fernando Valley to the north and the entire Santa Monica Mountains stretching toward Los Angeles to the east.
Best Times to Hike: This hike can be done any time of day, all year long. Just be sure to bring plenty of water and wear a hat - there's barely any shade to be found.
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (requires very little scrambling to the summit)

View from Sandstone Peak, looking east over the Santa Monica Mountains

View from Sandstone Peak, looking south toward the Pacific Ocean
After your hike, be sure to head down to Malibu to cool off in the refreshing Pacific Ocean. Also, you will find several affordable, laid-back restaurants along the Pacific Coast Highway, so plan to make a full day of this excursion.

End your day of hiking with a refreshing dip at one of Malibu's beaches
Comment below if you've hiked this trail or plan to hike it. I reply to all comments, so if you have any specific questions about the trail, please don't hesitate to ask. Also, be sure to check out my fitness inspiration blog, MyFitLife2Day, and my goals blog, Man of Merit, for more great pictures and stories from my hiking and outdoors fitness adventures. Oh, and while you're at it, follow me on Twitter @myfitlife2day.

Happy hiking!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hiking San Jacinto Peak via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Palm Springs is known as a haven of rest, relaxation and recreation. Located just far enough outside of Los Angeles to be an accessible anytime retreat, Palm Springs is also a great mecca for hiking. In fact, hiking to San Jacinto Peak via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway involves some of the best hiking anywhere in California.
San Jacinto Peak in the distance, seen from Palm Springs, Coachella Valley
The next time you find yourself in Palm Springs, take a break from the spa to find a different type of tranquility, the kind that comes from pushing your body to new limits in the cathedral of nature. The San Jacinto Peak hike offers breathtaking views of the Coachella Valley, the Transverse Mountains north of LA and the Los Angeles Basin - and on a clear day you can see all the way to Catalina and the Channel Islands!

This is a moderate to strenuous hike, but it is non-technical enough that families and fitness enthusiasts will love it even if they are not typically avid hikers. In short, I recommend this hike to anyone interested in doing a hike with true payoff.

Family fitness AND fun near San Jacinto Peak, view of LA Basin
Here are the quick stats for hiking San Jacinto Peak via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway:

Trailhead: 8,000 feet above Palm Springs - Take the tram to the Mountain Terminal and make your way down the switchback sidewalk to the Long Valley Ranger Station.
Distance: 11.5 miles, out-and-back
Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,600/2,600
Map: Available at the San Jacinto State Wilderness ranger Hut, .3 miles from the Mountain Terminal. You'll need to stop here to get a free wilderness permit. The rangers also sell more detailed guides to the flora and fauna of the mountain wilderness, which makes the hike more educational and fun, especially if you're hiking with kids.
Hiking Time: It took me 7.5 hours round trip, but I'm a gawker and take a slow to moderate pace. I'm told it can be done in about 6 hours. First tram up is 8 a.m. on the weekends and 10 weekdays. Plan to go early.
Best Times to Hike: June to October are the best bet, although May and November may be good, too, depending on seasonal snowfall. Plan to take the first tram up so you will have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous (requires some scrambling up boulders to the summit)

Beautiful white boulders and lodgepole pines en route to San Jacinto Peak
For more information about this hike, check out Jerry Schad's "101 Hikes in Southern California", published by Wilderness Press. He calls this hike "San Jacinto Peak (The Easy Way)". And for a bunch of pictures and thoughts from my recent trek to San Jacinto Peak, check out my blog Man of Merit.

Need help finding SoCal trail heads? Check out these great resources
If you have questions about this hike, please feel free to ask in the comment section below. Also, follow @myfitlife2day and ready my other blogs, MyFitLife2Day and Man of Merit. I am also on HubPages at

Happy hiking!