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Dan McCaslin: 17,000 Steps a Day to Better Health — Why Not the Trail Way?

Strengthen your body, relieve your mind and stimulate your spirit by hitting our vast array of beaches and trails

Rattlesnake Canyon is one of many local hiking areas that allow for ample exercise at zero cost. Click to view larger
Rattlesnake Canyon is one of many local hiking areas that allow for ample exercise at zero cost. (Dan McCaslin photo)

I’m now observing much higher usage of local trails along our verdant frontside canyons such as Rattlesnake Canyon and Jesusita, Romero and Cold Spring trails (see 4.1.1.).

The blossoming spring wildflowers run riot after our fabulous winter rains, the best precipitation these hillsides have had in five years. While the fragrant white ceanothus has peaked, and other blooms begin to wilt as summer heat and glare approach, different forms of flora and fauna proliferate and propagate.

On May 3, for example, on my return down from Tin Shack meadow 1.7 miles up the Rattlesnake Canyon wilderness trail, I encountered more than 35 hikers striding up in the glorious color and warmth of a spring morn, and this doesn’t count the 15-member botany class trudging uphill with their youthful instructor.

In this column, we’ll explore why so many Californians still remain physically inactive despite the close availability of our beaches and local trails for easy hiking at zero cost.

Almost all the humans I witnessed trailside looked pretty pleased with themselves walking along an almost-wild trail, with the rushing water music wafting up from the creek below. They also appeared reasonably fit and ready for serious hiking.

Yet with 350,000 general inhabitants in the area, it’s still surprising we see so few hikers and even fewer backpackers in our local back- and frontcountry.

Noted health writer and New York Times columnist Jane Brody, in discussing “Learning From Our Parents’ Heart Health Mistakes,” baldly states the blunt truth: “Most Americans today are nearly or completely inactive. Barely 20 percent of adults get the recommended minimum of 30 minutes a day of physical activity … .” [The New York Times]

So for all the hikers I’ve been seeing going after it in our local hills, there are another 80 percent simply facing a screen, watching the NBA playoffs, pounding a few over at Brophy’s or Harry’s, or possibly working out at home or in a local gym.

Of course, there are more hikers on the weekends — Sundays at Rattlesnake can be crowded — but not really so many more.

Brody asks the pertinent question that with so much medical advice available about heart health and the promise of exercise, why is there still so much heart disease today? It’s rather like asking why many young MLB pitchers suffer such horrible arm injuries when in the bad old days, without all these therapies, there were fewer injuries — and pitchers like Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson routinely pitched 300 innings, and mostly complete games at that?

Among these answers we read about the extremely sedentary lifestyles of most adult Americans. The reasons for this apparent sloth are many: fewer and fewer blue-collar jobs where physical exercise is part of one’s task; more jobs where the employee, often a female, is pinned behind her desk and gets no exercise even on the planned breaks; a growing fear of the outdoors; and a lack of information about where to go work out in nature.

Brody cites studies of the indigenous South American tribe known as the Tsimane, whose incidence of coronary atherosclerosis was found to be about one-fifth that of the incidence in the USA.

The Tsimane have a Stone Age forager-horticulturists lifestyle, and the women are physically active at least five hours a day — generally accumulating about 15,000 steps a day (males are active six to seven hours a day with about 17,000 steps). While about 70 percent of their calories come from carbohydrates, they aren’t vegetarians.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s recent pair of books — Sapiens (2014) and more controversially Homo Deus (2016) — overturn several cherished shibboleths about our species’ rise from just another naked ape to the dominant apex species on the mother planet today.

Harari spoke at UC Santa Barbara in late February. One of his startling reversals comes when redefining human “happiness” and combating the general assertion that human life became so much “better” during and after the storied Agricultural Revolution (which in my history courses I called the Neolithic Revolution).

Harari asserts, “The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do [today] … . In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition” (Sapiens, page 50). There is also some evidence that ancient hunter-gatherer cultures suffered less from infectious diseases.

The anthropology and history debates go on. Although Harari and Brody converge on paleo food and needs for less saturated fats, he is one of the first historians to see that the foraging hunter-gatherer lifestyle is also better simply because of the constant moving around.

Certainly our Stone Age hero, California Native American Yahi Ishi, would walk far more than the 17,000 steps per day. The continuous travel — move or starve! is the nomad’s cry — would bring tribal members a more varied diet, more interesting things to do and have additional health benefits.

They would forage for more knowledge, too, and I agree when Harari that “… at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history” (page 50).

If you don’t surf or play some competitive sports (adult leagues) or belong to a gym, remember that Stone Age humans easily doubled those “10,000” steps of physical movement we’ve been recommended for health and heart health.

Drive or bike, before or after work, to one of several nearby trailheads (see 4.1.1 list of five) and knock out 50 to 90 minutes of hiking. Bring water and perhaps hiking poles, and tell people where you are going — take a friend if you can.

Dragging your family into these hikes up Rattlesnake Canyon or other trails will be great for them and for you.

Consider banning all screens and phones at certain times of the day, and replace the sedentary digital culture with activities to strengthen body (and heart), stimulate the spirit and relieve the mind. Our Santa Barbara area offers plenty of opportunity in all these directions.

4.1.1

» Books and trails: Easy to find frontside trails at Rattlesnake Canyon (park at Skofield Park), Jesusita Trail, Cold Spring Trail (Montecito), Romero Canyon (Montecito) and the Bill Wallace Trail (west of Goleta off Highway 101). Jane E. Brody, “Learning From Our Parents’ Heart Health Mistakes” in The New York Times, April 11, 2017, D-5; Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (2014) and see all his Chapter 3: “A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve”; Harari, Homo Deus — A brief history of tomorrow (2016); and see his 2014 article in The Guardian.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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