Walking at altitude when it’s cold, because it’s good for your health

Walking at altitude when it’s cold, because it’s good for your health


Fewer and fewer ski weeks, more and more day trips and long weekends. And snow that is there and isn’t there. The intertwining of economic, social and climatic reasons, which in recent years have changed our lifestyle, has obviously also generated a significant impact on the ways of experiencing free time. Moving it in the direction of flexibility which, however, often ends up making us “hit and run” even in our relationship with the natural environment.

Habitat and physical effort

In the case of the mountains, which this season is the main protagonist of weekends out of town, frequenting this type brings with it a series of particular implications: linked to the level of confidence with the habitat, the type of physical commitment required and also to the behaviors that are increasingly important to be able to adopt. To limit, first of all, the risks associated with improvisation, in an environment which, especially in winter, presents its own peculiarities.

Bypassing the somewhat obvious discussion of preparation and precautions for practicing winter sports safely, it is instead interesting to focus on a series of considerations relating to “simple” walks. Simple, of course, only in appearance.

The health benefits

Starting from the fact that trekking at high altitude is a great resource for both our physical and mental well-being. In addition to the many positive effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine and muscular systems, in fact, the very act of walking on mountain paths is specifically connected to a decrease in mental stress and also a greater ability to consciously focus on oneself. Many excellent reasons to immerse yourself in the variety of the mountain environment as soon as you can, even if – in fact – some extra precautions are necessary, when you do it occasionally, without being able to boast of specific training.

Effort and nutrition

“From a physical point of view there is nothing “impossible”, but several important aspects. Everything is played out, fundamentally, on three fronts: effort training, nutrition and the evaluation of unexpected events – he explains Davide Fusetti, specialist in sports and exercise medicine at the Isokinetic Center in Milan -. When I talk about preparation I am referring both to the physical one, which is similar to that for endurance sports and must be done gradually, perhaps by including walks of intermediate difficulty, and to the preparation of the route.

Those who go on occasional excursions together with friends are often satisfied with recovering approximate information on the trip, while it is essential to know some details about the type of route you will tackle and evaluate how suitable it is for your physical fitness: it must be considered that snow increases the resistance to walking and that climbing a certain number of meters in the course of an hour’s walking, or tackling the same difference in altitude in double the kilometres, are apparently similar activities, but which in reality require very different commitments.

Another aspect to remember in winter is that, if you feel tired while walking, you should, if possible, avoid stopping along the path: rather, it is better to slow down your pace for the time necessary to recover your strength. This will prevent cooling, including that of the muscles.”

The role of carbohydrates, fats and water

And again: the diet must be rich in carbohydrates in anticipation of the effort (the ideal, specifies the doctor, is to have a hearty breakfast about an hour before setting off), while lunch must provide a moderate amount of fats, as long as they are easily digestible.

“The classic refuge tasting menu is certainly good for the social aspect and pleasure it brings with it, but it is better to reserve it for days when you don’t have to endure the greatest physical effort. An excellent thing, however, is to indulge in snacks while you walk, for example carrying portions of dried or dehydrated fruit with you. And then water: you must remember to drink at regular intervals even if the low temperatures make you feel less thirsty.

Liquids also disperse in winter, but it is good to remember that the process happens without us realizing it. Finally, in the evening meal, taking proteins will serve to restore to the muscles what was consumed during the effort.”

Altitude sickness

Fusetti reserves a separate consideration for “altitude sickness”: newbies in particular must be ready to recognize it, he warns. “Symptoms (nausea, migraine, fatigue) can appear when you quickly reach high altitudes: it is easier for this to happen, therefore, if you leave the city in the morning to be at your destination at lunch time. There is no need to dramatize, but it is advisable to descend to a lower altitude as soon as possible, yes. If the discomfort persists, it is necessary to consult a doctor who will evaluate the administration of drugs”.

If so far we have focused on the “instructions for use” from a more strictly physical point of view, in relation to psychological well-being, walking in the mountains has much fewer warnings (indeed, it essentially only has one), but a surplus of positive effects. Which are added to the general ones, already widely demonstrated, that every physical activity capitalizes on when practiced in nature and not in a closed environment.

Walk “consciously”

He talks about it Fabio Lucidi, full professor of Psychometry at La Sapienza, University of Rome, and expert, in particular, in issues related to sports psychology. “Man is biologically programmed to walk within open contexts. And even if today he no longer has an objective need to do so, this is due to a cultural and not biological change, so much so that the positive effects of this activity they are numerous and affect the entire organism in a cascade. That said, walking in the mountains, beyond a discussion of aesthetic preferences and individual preparation, is characterized by almost always being a “conscious” walk”.

That is, those who practice it habitually implement strategies of reflection and immersion, specific to practice at altitude (there is also a sort of posture typical of this more mentally collected walking mode). Going into even more detail: the social and recreational aspect, and the fact that (for reasons of safety, pleasure, custom) in the mountains you almost always go in company, are however associated with peculiar methods, which at the same time make this experience also very individual.

Recollection and silence fight stress

The use of silence, first of all, and respect for everyone’s concentration on their own emotional state. This type of situation and concentration, which is very common among people who walk in nature, and in particular on more demanding routes such as those involving a significant difference in altitude, has a largely positive effect on stress management and on the so-called “emotional repair”. “. Greater, in terms of mental well-being, compared to what is experienced in other situations of shared activity.

“In fact, the ability to react in a more reflective way with respect to what one is experiencing in one’s ego is promoted and, thus, a cascade of positive, useful and functional emotions is aroused”, explains the professor. “The level of rumination is eliminated and it is easier to imagine alternatives. But it is done (and this is a big difference) not through distraction, which is the classic strategy implemented by sociality, but, on the contrary, by remaining focus on yourself.”

Don’t call them “businesses”

And the only warning to handle with care, so what is it? Avoid corporate rhetoric, Lucidi clarifies. We must be able to distinguish between commitment, which is relevant and certainly to be valorised, and an overall dimension into which we tend to easily slip, which instead plays into the mythologisation of the company.

“First of all because on a person who is not physically prepared this can have counterproductive effects. And then because the undertaking itself is episodic, not repeatable. While the desirable objective should be to become a walker and not indulge in one or two exploits of walking in the mountains. It is the fact of entering into a repeated and cyclical perspective that brings the real benefits”, concludes the professor.



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