Refuge Notebook: Great health advice from the experts: Go take a hike

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

While watching ABC News Thursday evening (from my cushy recliner) I was intrigued by the story titled "Stand Up." After the news program I quickly forgot about the story until sitting behind my desk at work entering caribou telemetry data. I began having some back pain the past two months and sitting all day was aggravating the strain. I remembered the news story about how sitting for more than 6 hours a day can affect how long you live. Sitting could be deadly. I immediately got up from my desk, grabbed my sweatshirt and decided to take a walk on the trails here at the refuge headquarters. Even the short (1.9-mile) Centennial Trail was enough to get my heart rate and breathing elevated and made my senses more aware of my surroundings. Getting back to my desk I was more focused and more productive at finishing the data entry.

Nature can be some of the best medicine for what ails us. Taking a hike one of the many trails on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge can bring health of mind, body and spirit. Being a wildlife biologist and pilot for the Fish and Wildlife Service would make you think of a healthy employee. However, the more I think about it on average I am sitting for most of my work day, whether I am flying the refuge Supercub tracking caribou, surveying birds or counting moose (sitting in a plane for hours) or entering data into the computer and generating reports (sitting at my desk). My work day, like many of you, is spent sitting way too much.

The ABC News story points out that our American culture of sitting is unhealthy; some doctors go so far as to compare it with smoking. Even those who do want to get away from it all and get out into nature typically want to do it using snow machines, ATVs, motor boats, and airplanes. Why this anathema to walking? I have talked to so many people in my 18 years here at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge who complain about access to the refuge. I always tell them you can walk anywhere you want on the refuge. Yes there are restrictions at different times of the year on snowmobiles (not enough snow), ATVs (not allowed at any time). But there are no restrictions on snowshoes, skis, or a good pair of hiking boots or even tennis shoes!

The health benefits of those activities (not to mention the better chance of seeing wildlife, or listening to nature, or breathing in fresh air) are so much healthier than sitting on a machine, breathing exhaust and noisily motoring your way into the wild. Using your own two feet is not only healthier but also cheap! We should prefer to burn free calories rather than $4 a gallon gasoline.

I used to have a dog, a yellow lab who was my best friend. There were many times when I was sitting in my cushy recliner reading a good book or watching the television and my dog would come over and nudge my arm or my leg and give me the "eye." I would always smile and say "you ready for a walk?" He would bark, the tail would be wagging furiously, and he would be jumping on all fours. Oh the excitement to go for a walk. It was catchy. Getting up from the chair and out into the woods around my house or a trail on the refuge was always a good time. Seeing the joy for my dog as we walked a trail, his checking out the environment with his nose and the excitement of being outdoors was intoxicating. His excitement was contagious for me too.

I lost my friend back in January and I realize how much more sedentary I became after his passing. I miss his nudging me for the daily walk and the sparkle in his eye when I would ask if he was ready. I need to get another dog.

If sitting changes our body chemistry, making us prone to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity then each of us has a choice to make. For me the choice is to get up from my chair, talk a walk every day and enjoy the beauty of the world around us. We are so blessed here on the Kenai and especially in the great state of Alaska to have so much opportunity to get out and enjoy the natural world. In so doing we can invigorate our mind, body and spirit. Who wouldn't want that?

Rick Ernst is a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist/pilot who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for over 18 years.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website,

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