Though it is generally agreed that mountains are one of nature’s most impressive and beautiful landscape types, they often get bad press when it comes to health. Sure mountains may offer a place for us to get outside and work up a sweat but if you go too high too fast you are in for a world of hurt. From headaches to nausea to pulmonary and cerebral edemas, mountains can wreak havoc on your immediate health if you’re not careful. That being said, if you enjoy the world’s elevated playgrounds responsibly the benefits can be significant and long lasting.
Recent research from the International Journal of Obesity has begun to show that spending time at altitude can have a pronounced effect on weight. Looking at obesity rates in counties across the United States, researchers noticed that the thinnest communities in the country also tended to be the loftiest. At the state level, Colorado demonstrated the nation’s lowest obesity rate at 19.8% (the only state under 20%). You might think these effects are the result of healthier, more active people living in places with access to mountains and that argument hold some water until you realize that the effect of altitude on weight is consistent even when you control for exercise levels.
Further research suggests that the mechanism may be that mountains actually reduce a person’s appetite. The findings, presented by Wired, suggest that the hormone responsible for making us feel full (leptin) surged in a group of participants who spent time in a high altitude environment. At the same time, the main hormone responsible for causing hunger (grehlin) was unaffected. The result was less appetite, average weight loss of 3 pounds in one week, and long-term weight loss of 2 pounds.
Spending time at high elevations can also have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular health. Correlational studies have suggested that people who live at altitude are at reduced risk of many types of heart disease. There are two possible explanations for this: First, the lower oxygen level in the air has a known impact on gene expression. By switching on certain genes, the air found at high elevations could lead to improved functioning of heart muscles. The reduced oxygen is also likely to result in the creation of more blood vessels for oxygen to flow through, leading to better overall health. The alternate explanation is that the higher levels of solar radiation at altitude could lead to better synthesis of vitamin D which humans get directly from the sun.
Given its effects on weight and cardiovascular health it may not surprise you to learn that people who live at higher elevations also tend to live longer lives. Whether it is a direct result of the changes the body undergoes at altitude or due to lifestyle changes that people at higher elevations are subject to, life expectancy appears to rise with height above sea level. A total of 11 of the 20 US counties with the highest life expectancies were located above 5,967 feet (1,819 meters). Looking at the top 10 counties, 7 were in Colorado, the nation’s loftiest state, and had an average life expectancy of 81.3 years compared with 78.4 in the US overall.
It definitely takes a certain kind of person to spend a lot of time high in the mountains, but science is beginning to understand that that sort of person may incur some serious health benefits. As I said at the outset, mountains can be dangerous and taking it slow is the name of the game at first. However, if you can get your body used to thinner air and steep ascents the payoff could be a longer, healthier life.