how hiking heals

Posted on September 3rd, 2013

The other day I had a twiddle with my social media feeds. It was one of those nights we all have – where we go down that rabbit hole of toggling between feeds to see…to see…what other people are doing and thinking and seeing… and what they’re thinking of us. It’s both comforting and disconcerting. It’s like picking a pimple…wrong and yet so viscerally satisfying. We all do it. We all have those nights. I don’t care what you say.

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So I twiddled my Instagram profile. Changed the picture. And changed my little bio line to include this:

“I have a crankin’ auto immune disease that I tame with food and hiking.”

I wrote it. Then I realised the potency of it. Yes, food and hiking are how I manage my illness. I’ve been doing it for years. And I only just – in that late-night pimple-picking-ish moment – appreciated exactly why I’ve done it. It’s because it works.

Let’s talk hiking. Hiking is my default travel raison d’etre. When you travel solo, you have to create a travel raison d’etre. Couples and groups of friends have shared experiences and the very process of negotiating and compromising becomes a motivating and guiding raison d’etre in and of itself. It creates boundaries. When you’re on your own you can literally do whatever you want. So you have to reign things in and create a framework of purpose. It needs to be a framework that can stand up to the loneliness of moments, and the most angst-ridden existential meltdowns. Hiking does this.

PS I’ve recorded all my hiking journeys around the world and in Australia too with the hashtags #worldwanders #hike #bushexcursion

PPS I’ve written a hiking guide to Iceland, Provence and Andalucia.

But it also does more. As I say, it tames and heals any dis-ease, whether it be illness, angst, pain, longing, frustration, imbalance. Here’s how:

* Hiking grounds us. Literally – in that it connects us with the earth. With dirt, rocks, trees, ants. I’ve touched on this “wilderness effect” and the importance of connecting with negative ions in soil before.

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* Hiking gets systems working as they should. Walking is the best thing ever for anyone with lymphatic issues. When I’m thyroidy, I hike and my swelling settles. It also builds up appetite in a natural way…not in an overly taxing way. And it gets us out into fresh air. Again the wilderness effect. But, also, there are longevity and wellness claims to be made here. As many centenarians have.

I’ve also written about why walking is the best exercise around.

* Hiking gets us in touch with awe. For me, trudging over rocks and earth for hours on end puts things in perspective. Life feels big, I – and my pain – feel small. This heals.

* Hiking lulls the mind. My mind chatter goes crazy at first – inventing, debating, scheduling – then it settles, slowly. It’s like my mind is rocked to sleep by the motion. After about 40 minutes it settles into a thoughtless, wordless space. I become aware only of the sounds, the smells…I’m taken away from my dis-ease. I’m comforted and comfortable. I can feel my angry inflammation settle, too. Oh, sweet nothing! For thyroid types like myself, it’s in the nothingness that things are tamed.

It’s in the space between things – the noise, the activity, the trying so hard – that we heal.

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* Hiking gets us present. This is key. Let me explain. When you hike over a long period in tough conditions (heat, rocks, steepness) you must enter the moment. You must focus on the here and now. This is because as soon as your mind wanders to thoughts of the finish line or of what you’re going to eat for dinner or whether you have enough water for the distance or how tired you’re feeling, you lose your mojo. Your heart sinks. It hurts. Instead, you must keep trudging and enjoying the trudging. The crunch of the rocks under foot. The cicadas. The smell of the fig trees. This is not even something you have to choose. You must do it, to keep going. To not feel like you’re going to throw up. As soon as I start trying to calculate how much further it is to go, I feel a stab of sickness in the gut and I’m forced back to the present. What a gift, hey! Time passes so pleasantly, steered and corralled by the pain of future thinking.

* Hiking gets us to love going slow. I can be in pain sometimes when I hike. I don’t have juice. But if I’m 7km from home, I have to keep going. How?

I go slow. I break it down. I find the perfect pace. The sweet spot. 

And just this act – finding your sweet spot – is a key skill in healing dis-ease. To know how to find YOUR sweet spot, that’s true wellness.

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How do you hike? Do you hike to heal? To have travel purpose?

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  • Sarah, you’re posts just make me so happy.

    From the outside, it could be easy to think that you are this incredibly strict, disciplined person who does everything perfectly, but then you take the time to read your posts and they are so brutally honest. They make me feel like I am not alone in the world, and that it’s ok to be perfectly imperfect. You struggle in ways that I struggle, and you make it feel ok. You seem to go with the flow, and do what works best for you, then share it with us just in case it might work for us too, and I find it incredibly inspiring.

    So thank you.


  • Emily

    Hi Sarah,

    Thank you for this post. Much of it hit home and in particular your fantastic discription that “It’s in the space between things – the noise, the activity, the trying so hard – that we heal.” I’ve been thinking about this alot lately, in particular today as I drive home 2 hours to just have a night in my own bed before another 2 hour drive away for a few days work again. It’s just too much and has to stop. I think there is alot of noise, activity and yes, trying to hard (for what end I’m not exactly sure!). I’m not exactly sure how I ended up making myself so busy but I can feeling myself being sucked back into the whirlpool as has happened before and this post has helped remind me that the ramifications of that are far worse than anything that could happen as a result of saying ‘no’ a few times. Say ‘yes’ to some stillness and trust that everthing will work out.

    Thanks. Enjoy your adventure!

    Do you have any favourite hikes around Sydney that you would recommend?



  • Carly

    Hi Sarah,
    I suffer badly from autoimmune illness ( thyroid, cfs – call it what you will!)
    But unfortunately a gentle 10 min walk is my ‘hike’ still after more than a decade. It’s good though and that’s my ‘sweet spot’ even though I hope for more too.

    But that feeling of life being big – far bigger than you – with your inconsequential worries and fears – it is so grounding … And… Calming… Cathartic. What I do myself is go right down to the edge of the sea so that I shut off Any land vision and my toes are on the edge or even in the water if its warm( but I live in the Uk


  • elle

    I try to walk as much as possible everywhere and anywhere. It is so grounding you’re right. It is the best thing for me when I get all frenetic and anxious, walking out the adrenalin, breathing the fresh air and noticing the surroundings in the moment. After awhile I calm right down. On a completely irrelevent topic- I am currently struggling with IBS and constipation which feels neverending and quite hopeless! I eat a low Fodmap diet without sugar, gluten and dairy. I mostly eat vegies, meat, fruit and rice. Can anyone advise me what helped them with these issues??


    Naomi Lee Reply:

    Hi Elle

    IBS is awful. I can recall be doubled over in pain some days when I suffered it back in my 20s. Mine started to heal when I starting seeing a Chinese Doctor who advised me how to eat for my body type. She said I lacked ‘digestive fire’ and was better off on a diet of warm, cooked food. No cold drinks from the fridge. No ice cream (!!) and limited raw salads and fruits- especially in winter. Instead, I ate casseroles and soups and baked veggies. I still mainly eat this way. It made a huge difference to me. Also years of yoga – getting the energy flowing through my body (my temptation with IBS was to curl up in bed with a hot water bottle).

    Lately, I’ve jumped on the fermented food (sauerkraut) bandwagon – and this has helped as well. Sarah has a great post somewhere on her site about how to make it. Or you could start off by buying probiotics.

    Also – I find what Sarah says about chia seeds is true – they really get the gut going. So much so, that I don’t eat them often. But perhaps they’d be good for you?

    wishing you luck with your healing. IBS is tricky as it’s an umbrella term doctors use when they don’t know what’s wrong, which means there’s no one-size-fits all to fix it.


  • Suzanne

    No grains.


  • No grains has greatly helped my IBS too Elle. Digestive enzymes and probiotics help too. I also take Benefiber as a fiber supplement.


    elle Reply:

    Isn’t benefiber made from wheat?


    Vicki Reply:

    Yep, go figure, but its what my gastroenterologist recommended it because so many of the other options blow me up and make the constipation worse (including psyllium husks). Beats me why it works for me. But I only take it when I need it (which isn’t very often these days) and it doesn’t seem to have a negative affect. It certainly doesn’t affect me like a bowl of pasta!

    I have found the IBS journey has been very much a case of try it and see for me and what works for one doesn’t always work for all. To be honest Elle, stress probably has been as much of a factor in all of this as what I eat and over the long term (this has been a 12 year journey), managing the stress has helped immensely. I am 100% better than I was when I was first diagnosed but it has taken time.

    I haven’t found one miracle cure. I think it’s been the accumulative effect of lots of changes, big and small. But in testing and trying different things, you will find what works for you. There are answers out there, just keep seeking and testing.

    All the best with your journey.


    Elle Reply:

    Thanks Vicky. I just wish there was a quick fix ! Stress is certainly a factor and I have severe anxiety which I know is the cause. The problem is the IBS makes me anxious too ! Anyway so glad you’re lots better. I’ve already changed from being a vegetarian carb and sugar addict to mostly eating meat and veggies and fats so it’s slow change 🙂


    fiona forsyth @loveyourhealth Reply:

    Sorry to jump in but I wrote my thesis on IBS its a very complicated dis-ease, be patient, seek help, sometimes Naturopathic help can work more effectively than what the Gastroenterologist can do for you. Good luck on your journey, it certainly is very mind-gut responsive.x


    elle Reply:

    Hey Fiona, I’d be interested to hear more about what you learnt writing your thesis :). If anyone can recommend a naturopath or other health professional for IBS issues in Sydney I’d be really interested. Thanks


  • This post brought tears to my eyes. I totally get this, yet I don’t do it! I can imagine hiking with my boys, the baby on my back and what a hike would help them to learn about the world whilst they explore. To understand the phenomenon of being present is the most valuable tool I can try to help my children learn. Guess what we are doing on Sunday!


  • Wow – I posted this the day before – so with you Sarah!


  • Awesome read sarah, love your philosophy and the way you explain it so articulately, ‘gets us in touch with awe, lulls the mind clears the chatter’. We all need a little hiking daily.


  • Ebs

    While we’re on it – i’m suffering adrenal fatigue and leaky gut, with poss thyroid problems. I’m in canberra and seeing one naturopath but i’m not sure if there’s someone who might be a better fit. Does anyone have any canb/syd recommendations?


  • I can’t say I’m a hiker but I definitely appreciate the art and healing aspects of walking mixed with sunshine and water. I would live to go hiking thought when travelling at some point so thanks for sharing all your experiences as it is a great starting guide!


  • I’ve just had a great active relaxing holiday. Instead of flying somewhere abroad (again) we took the train (and one more train and a bus and one more bus 🙂 and spent some days in a small village practically in the middle of nowhere just hiking, cycling, running, kayaking the whole time eating plant based food. It was amazing, just what someone – normally living a busy city life – needs. I haven’t felt this contented for ages. We really should do this kind of things much more often.
    I love your natural lifestyle, Sarah!


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  • Hi Sarah,
    Great article.
    Hiking connects me to me. We are lucky enough to live on edge of the Dandenong National Park, and the games and trails I walk with my kids is insane. My 2yo can easily walk 2+km! lol I’m brining walking to the next generation one step at time 🙂


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  • Sky

    OK, this is a little embarrassing but I’m going to reach out anyway…love the articles I’ve read so far, especially about hiking and finding that sweet spot and that as a metaphor for being with our disease. Beautiful. I have ulcerative colitis and now Hashimotos’ – new diagnosis, they won’t give me T3 until next round blood tests…I am doing the GAPS diet for the second time for both conditions (anti-inflammatory, seal up gut lining, etc).

    To compound this I went on temp disability a few months ago as a low back injury got triggered. I had just started exercising regularly for about 18 months, first time in my life…was slowly getting muscle tone…then kaboom, back is out…every time I went back into any exercise much it hurts. Am seeing a new physical therapist hopefully I’ll figure out what I need to figure out.

    My current angst is this…I’m in northern CA…we’ve had our rains, its gorgeous, spring has sprung. And all my muscle tone is pure flab AND I have massive (truly) cellulite on my legs – I think thats genetic and lack of exercise….and even some on my arms. I’m 53…I feel small, I have a small frame, but cannot wear shorts, skirts…my legs are huge. I think I will slowly start walking, I want to hike but tricky with my back but will try anyway….I need to go slow…thats why I keep backsliding is I jump too quick into exercise.

    Bottom line for anyone who has made it thus far (thank you)….How do you get rid of cellulite? there has to be a way. Even if I have to do it in the sweet slower way…(versus going back to cardio interval classes at gym) there has to be a way, its making me miserable and it doesn’t feel like ME.

    god bless for listening!!


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