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Hike Further, Live Longer: Medical Benefits of Hiking Detroit’s Trails

Written by Dr. Eric Reilly, here we thoroughly examine one of the most pressing health risks in the Detroit region - chronic physical inactivity - and the profound medical benefits of hiking your favorite trails!

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This Halloween, I wanted to share a true tale of terror that haunts the Detroit area’s medical community. A silent killer that moves undetected through each of its neighborhoods. A verifiable infliction that thrives within its host for years before it rears its ugly head.


No, this isn’t a virus, parasite, or a mutated variant of the cordyceps fungus.


This killer is chronic physical inactivity, and it’s running rampant throughout North America – and particularly in the Detroit region.

expedition detroit medical benefits of hiking trails medicine health activity physical mental

THE VULNERABILITY OF THE DETROIT REGION

This should hopefully not come as a surprise, but remaining active and exercising regularly is paramount in protecting your health. Regardless of your demographic, and especially in the Detroit region. Why? Because in terms of Metro Detroit's personal health, the deck is most likely stacked against us.


For starters, our modern work schedules and physically latent jobs make active lifestyles immensely difficult to prioritize. The average working adult in the United States works 34.6 hours per week and the average commute in Metro Detroit is 55.2 minutes round trip. Crunching the numbers, it’s fair to estimate the average working adult in Metro Detroit spends roughly 32% of their awake time at work, allotting for 8 generous hours of sleep. However, it isn’t just the time spent at work, but also the type of work which plays a major role in one’s health. Some studies suggest sedentary occupations have high occurrences of heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.


Even when away from the office, work and life in general can be mentally taxing. To cope with mental stressors, individuals may make poor food choices and adopt idle home habits, which can exacerbate negative health outcomes. Within the Detroit region, this particular issue is compounded since many areas fall into a “Food Swamp” classification, defined as communities that often have high-calorie, low-cost food options – in addition to financial constraints. Stated differently, Food Swamp conditions typically cause healthier food options to remain scarce or beyond the budget.


As a result of these factors, mass routines of dormancy have spread a “physical inactivity epidemic” that is wreaking havoc across Michigan. Physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of common diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and heart disease. When uncontrolled, conditions such as diabetes can lead to serious ailments such as kidney failure, loss of limbs, and heart attacks. Nearly 25% of Michigan residents do not exercise monthly, 35.1% have high blood pressure, 34.7% are obese, 11.7% have diabetes, and 29% of all deaths are from cardiovascular disease.

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PITFALLS OF OVER-THE-COUNTER SHORTCUTS

One could reasonably assume that simply taking medication will solve their medical problems, but medications alone may not fix the cause - and can have debilitating side effects. For example, common medications for high blood pressure cause the blood pressure to appear lower, but the underlying disease often still exists. Such medications can act as a short-cut for symptom management, but one should consider making long term changes – such as diet and exercise – to help reverse the disease.


Just like on the trail, shortcuts in medicine can be dangerous. Without proper long-term disease management, the damage can compound and high blood pressure can lead to kidney failure, stroke, heart failure, and even death. While standard practices like surgery can solve some physical problems, all surgeries have risks and those risks grow exponentially when a patient presents with severe underlying conditions or disease. For example, obese patients undergoing surgery have higher risks of developing infections, kidney failure, blood clots, and unplanned hospital readmissions. If an obese patient is taking a GLP-1 agonist, they have increased risks of perioperative aspiration which can result in respiratory failure and death. One may assume the increased risks would lead to less surgery in obese patients but, to the contrary, the chances of having a knee replacement are 8 times higher for patients with a BMI over 30, and 28 times higher for a BMI over 35.


Clearly, the safest journey through life is one which minimizes disease burden and the need for medical treatment. By preventing common diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, one can reduce the risk of severe complications such as strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure. Luckily, an easy and affordable way to help prevent and reverse common disease is through physical activity – such as hiking around Metro Detroit!

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TRAIL THERAPY FOR PHYSICAL LONGEVITY

Now that we’ve hopefully scared any inactivity right out of you, let’s shift this article’s focus to how important physical activity is in preserving one’s quality and longevity of life. Better yet, let’s utilize a practical example to illustrate how you can incorporate a methodical approach to physical exercise into your recreational passions: hiking Island Lake Recreation Area’s Yellow Trail Loop.

The Yellow Trail Loop is a 40 minute drive from downtown Detroit and spans 5.5 miles with 278 feet of elevation gain, which is enough of a hike to get anyone’s heart pumping. But, what does that exercise do? For starters, the average person burns roughly 100 calories for every mile walked. With elevation considered, walking this trail could burn roughly 500-700 calories. Regular exercise and aerobic activities - like hiking the Yellow Trail Loop - can provide phenomenal health benefits over a lifetime. Such a trail-centric lifestyle can cut the risk of coronary heart disease in half, lower blood pressure by up to 10 points, reduce insulin requirements in type-1 diabetes, reverse type-2 diabetes, lower cholesterol levels, decrease risks of colon cancer, enhance the immune system, reverse osteoporosis, and improve bone density.


HIKE THE ISLAND LAKE YELLOW TRAIL LOOP WITH US THIS FALL!


Hiking specifically can increase one’s baseline metabolic rate, which makes it easier to maintain weight loss – as opposed to dieting where weight can be regained easily. Hiking also releases stored endogenous catecholamines, which can relieve muscle tension and anxiety. Hiking can even improve sleep through sun-induced balance of circadian rhythms and regulation of hormones.


Physical benefits aside, the mental benefits are immeasurable. Embracing nature, observing wildlife, appreciating the solitude, and removing oneself from the chaotic congested streets of everyday life can be soul cleansing. By definition, a hike is just a long walk on a trail. If the idea of a "hike" is insurmountable, then any aerobic activity – preferably outdoors – is a great substitute to reap similar health benefits. Even just a walk around the block helps more than sitting inside.


The physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise, such as hiking, are clear. Life is busy and it is difficult to prioritize oneself, loved ones, work, diet, exercise, and everything else the world demands. Yet, it is even harder to manage those priorities when faced with personal health ailments. The keys to remaining healthy are regular doctor appointments, diet, and exercise.


Even when feeling healthy - go in for an annual check-up with a physician, substitute the fried food for vegetables, and make efforts to increase your physical activity. Lace up the boots and try a new trail, or a bike ride, or even a walk around the block. Refer to Expedition Detroit to find inspiration for new local trails. Don’t be afraid to wake up early and catch a sunrise from a dew-dropped wooded path. The more you do it, the longer you will be able to keep doing it.


As best stated by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, “…wake up early for a dawn patrol or jump into that cold mountain lake and send while you can.”

 

Dr. Reilly is an anesthesiologist born and raised in Southeast Michigan. Dr. Reilly is currently an Attending Anesthesiologist & Clinical Instructor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, as well as a Regional Anesthesia and Acute Pain Medicine Fellow at the University of Washington Medical Center. Outside of the hospital, Dr. Reilly is an accomplished backpacker, deep powder skier, and an invaluable early supporter of Expedition Detroit. He credits his grandfathers for teaching him the beauty and spirit of Michigan’s great wilderness.


This article serves as an opinion piece to educate but should not be used as direct medical advice. Always consult your healthcare professional(s) before making changes to your medications, diet, or physical activity habits.

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