In the 1950s, Englishman Alfred Wainwright began walking the hills of Great Britain’s Lake District, meticulously noting every ridge, road marker, possible ascent, and even tree. Wainwright spent more than ten years on this pilgrimage, which resulted in a 7-volume book series, “Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.” The beautiful books, published in his own handwriting and with his own drawings, remain treasured by hikers visiting the Lakes nearly 70 years later. Take a look at a page from one of his works:
Clearly, Wainwright loved the mountains. Many people do; wild, mountainous areas all over the world draw millions of visitors every year. Hill country is gorgeous, of course, so that’s no surprise, but did you know that mountains can also be good for your health?
In 2016, Japan began celebrating Mountain Day (Yama-no-Hi) as a newly-created national holiday. Every August 11 is dedicated to appreciating the blessings that mountains offer, and we feel that this tradition, or at the very least, this appreciation, should spread to more places. Let’s discuss some mountain blessings!
Lower heart disease
A research report published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health surveyed the population of U.S. counties and found wildly different life expectancies across the country, mostly because of differences in chronic diseases. The researchers found that counties above 1500 meters (4,921 feet) had longer life expectancies than counties located within 100 meters (328 feet) of sea level, sometimes by as much as 3.6 years. After further untangling the results, they discovered that this was probably due to decreased levels of ischemic heart disease. The increased life expectancy was much more prevalent for men, which makes sense since men are much more likely to suffer from heart disease.
This report also found that people who had COPD actually did worse at higher altitudes, but the effects on heart disease were strong enough to still increase life expectancy.
Science Daily offers some explanations for why this might happen. According to this article, lower oxygen at high altitudes may encourage our genes to create blood vessels. More blood vessels improve blood flow throughout the body, and since ischemic heart disease results from narrow or blocked arteries, this better flow can help prevent it. Another possible explanation “could be that increased solar radiation at altitude helps the body better synthesize vitamin D, which has also been shown to have beneficial effects on the heart and some kinds of cancer.” Whatever the reason, the good effects of high altitude on heart disease are pretty solid. People with severe lung problems should avoid altitude, but for everyone else, annual trips to the mountains could do some real good.
Amazingly, heights can also help with weight loss! Similarly to lower heart disease, the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, but researchers have good theories about what might be going on. Scientists observed for decades that animals lose weight in the mountains, but a recent study showed some incredible results in humans. A Wired article summarizing the study (originally published in the journal Obesity) pointed out that “overweight, sedentary people who spent a week at an elevation of 8,700 feet lost weight while eating as much as they wanted and doing no exercise.” What’s more, they kept most of that weight off a month after returning home! What was going on?
According to this study, it probably had something to do with the significantly lower number of calories the men ate during their trip. The researchers also noticed that levels of leptin, a hormone that helps us feel full, spiked during the study. However, the hormone grehlin (which makes us feel hungry) stayed the same. Most likely, the test group simply felt fuller while at altitude and therefore ate less. In addition, “their metabolic rate also spiked, meaning they burned more calories.”
This isn’t to say that everyone should pack up and move to the mountains in order to slim down. Other studies show that after about 6 months in high places, the appetite hormones level out again and things go back to normal. Visiting the mountains is not a panacea, but it could be a good way to reset your appetite and give yourself a bit of a boost while trying to manage food portions.
Of course, few people visit the mountains and do no exercise at all. Even those unable to do strenuous exercise can find nice walking trails, but most people ascend to experience nature. Hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding…the mountains give us loads of options for burning calories. We checked an exercise calculator – hiking in hilly terrain, for 3 hours and carrying a bag less than 10 pounds burns about 1700 calories for someone who weighs 180 pounds. A three-hour hike is fairly short (five miles or under), so keep that in mind while you’re climbing! You’re really letting your body work!
Mountains create their own weather patterns. The way mountains channel air tends to result in more snow or rainfall on the heights, which often leads to more vegetation. In many places, this means forests! A study* published by the science journal Elsevier found that trees and forests in the lower 48 states removed about 17 million tons of air pollution in 2010. According to the study, this cleaner air avoided more than 850 human deaths and 670,000 acute respiratory problems.
Aside from having more trees, mountains do a stellar job of avoiding pollution in the first place. Although traffic from human visitors can, and does, damage mountain environments, mountain heights avoid the same kind of pollution seen at lower elevations. Not all pollutants are too large or dense to rise up to the peaks, but some are. Air currents formed around mountains can also disperse pollutants more quickly than might happen down in the valleys. Finally, thinner mountain air may be easier for some people to breathe. There’s a fine line here, of course; overexertion at high altitudes can make people incredibly sick (please don’t try a marathon at 8,000 feet unless you’ve acclimated first). But those with somewhat inflamed airways, such as asthmatics, may struggle less to get enough air in the hills.
*This link may direct to an academic login. If you have access to the Elsevier journal and want to read more, search for “Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States” by Nowak, Hirabayashi, Bodine, and Greenfield.
Mood and mind booster
An article from the University of Rochester summarizes the results of multiple studies focused on nature and mood. In short, being in nature makes us feel more alive. Richard Ryan, a professor at the university, stated that “people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses.” In fact, one of these studies found that people just remembering time spent outside increased their feelings of happiness and health.
In addition, a series of five experiments involving more than 500 students proved that the improved mood did not come only from side effects of exercising outside or spending time with other people. Even just imagining themselves to be outside helped students feel better and more energetic. It didn’t take much, either; 20 minutes a day was enough to lift spirits. Another paper published in the Sage journal took this a bit farther. They compared the benefits from exercising on a treadmill in a gym, looking at nature, and actually being outside. All three activities helped people, but those who were physically outside had better results. By all means, take a mental break during your day to imagine yourself in a natural place that makes you happy. Just don’t forget to make time to truly step outdoors and savor the natural world, too. A beautiful essay in Yes! Magazine examines the author’s own experience of finding healing in nature and the results of further experiments. Did you know that an experiment by Stanford University proved that a group who walked in nature had better memory performance and decreased anxiety? Or that a 40-minute walk in the woods lowers our cortisol?
Finally, don’t overlook what nature does for the senses. Outside, we can see the beautiful surroundings, hear the calls of wildlife and rustling trees, feel the mountain breezes, and smell the world outside. Yes, smell. The Yes! article mentions an experiment by Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. This research showed that “trees and plants emit compounds known as phytoncides that …give us therapeutic benefits akin to aromatherapy.” These compounds also change our blood composition! Amazingly, this helps protect us against cancer, boosts our immune system, and even lowers blood pressure.
A piece by the Huffington Post reports that the smell of pine lowers stress and the smell of fresh-cut grass can make us happier. Harvard explains how smell and memory work together. The next time you’re in the mountains, pay attention to what you smell. When you’re home again and need the little mental break from the day-to-day, perhaps adding a pine-scented candle or room spray will help you imagine you’re in a more serene surrounding.
Just being outside is great for our health, but there are extra benefits for traveling a little higher. Being in the mountains helps lower risks for heart disease, decreases our appetites, gives us cleaner air, and makes us feel happier, more alert, and more alive. As we round out the summer, head for the hills for a chance to restore your well-being.