Welcome to Connecting the Dots on Diabetes, a series by Sydney Williams of Hiking My Feelings, chronicling the organization’s mission to hike 1 million miles for diabetes awareness.
Throughout the series, Sydney, who received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in 2017, will dig into questions like: Is there a relationship between trauma and diabetes? If so, if we treat the trauma, can we more effectively treat diabetes? And how can self-reflection help make sense of a diabetes diagnosis and lead to better outcomes?
Towering 14,505 feet above sea level, I stood at the summit of Tumanguya (aka Mount Whitney) in the Eastern Sierra mountains — the tallest mountain in the lower 48 United States — soaking up one of the most meaningful moments of my life.
When it was all said and done, we hiked 21.5 miles and climbed 6,711 feet in one day. We started at 2:30 a.m. and summited around 10:45 a.m., returning back to our cars some 16 hours after we started. It was, on paper, the hardest thing I ever attempted to complete physically.
In my body, however? I delivered the best athletic performance of my life. But I didn’t just wake up one day and decide, “Hey, let’s go climb a really tall mountain.” It took a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, thousands of miles of preparation on the trails, and a lot of trial and error to arrive at the summit.
Growing up in Kansas, my version of being “outdoorsy” was riding my bike around the neighborhood and going to the community pool with my family. Over the course of my life, I was a gymnast and a competitive all-star cheerleader, plus I dabbled in a variety of sports in middle and high school.
I knew I wanted to participate in some kind of team sport in college, so I joined the women’s rowing team at the University of Kansas during my freshman year. It was in the middle of our conditioning practice — morning workouts in the weight room, water workouts after class — when I started to reap the mental health benefits that come from exerting myself physically outdoors.
After two-a-days, my mind was clear. At the time, I chalked it up to being tired after so much exertion. But looking back, knowing what I know now about managing my mental health as a function of my diabetes management plan, it’s so clear to me.
The absence of the ruminating thoughts and anxiety around my athletic and academic performance was so quiet, it was unnerving to my normal, daily existence.
It was much more fun to do, knowing that taking this time for myself was positively impacting my health and having the numbers to prove it.
After my diabetes diagnosis, I started walking around my neighborhood at the suggestion of my doctor. At first, it felt impossible. Physically, I was huffing and puffing. Emotionally, I was sure my neighbors were watching me and evaluating my body as I walked up and down the canyon road near our house.
As time went on, my morning walks became my favorite part of the day because it was my time to myself. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks — it was just me and the birds and the sounds of my neighborhood.
Eventually, my body adjusted to the difficulty, and when the morning walks became too “easy” for me, I started hiking local trails.
All the while, I was adjusting to the movement plan I created for myself. I was learning more about how all of this activity impacted my blood sugar numbers. And the results were great.
It was much more fun to do, knowing that taking this time for myself was positively impacting my health and having the numbers to prove it. It got to the point where I was looking forward to my walks and hikes, and I would be sad if I missed an opportunity to have that time to myself.
Hiking in and of itself is a wonderful form of movement for diabetes prevention and management because it gets your body moving, and as my husband reminds me when I get whiny on the trail, “We’re just walking.”
As you start to move more, you give yourself more opportunities to reflect.
Whether it’s a walk around the local park or a trip to the Yosemite backcountry, research supports what other cultures outside of the United States have known for thousands of years: Spending time in nature has incredible benefits for mental health.
It’s hard not to be inspired by and feel connected to something bigger than yourself when you’re surrounded by so much natural beauty.
For me, hiking is the best for my mental, physical, and spiritual health. But you can experience the healing power of nature in a lot of ways: climbing, fishing, gardening, swinging on swings, or meditating under a tree.
The key factor is to be disconnected from the distractions of everyday life and tune in to yourself, the activity itself, and your surroundings.
When you find an activity that you love doing and look forward to, here are some prompts to use to start reflecting on your movement practice. Ask yourself:
As you continue building your practice, give yourself time to reflect on the ways it impacts you beyond the numbers on the scale or the readings on your glucose monitor.
Get curious about the plants and animals around you, pay attention to what direction the wind is coming from during the different seasons, and notice how the sun sets in a different position at different points of the year.
By observing your surroundings in this way, you start to flex your reflection muscles, which can translate directly to self-reflection and make it a bit easier.
At the end of the day, the world is your oyster when it comes to self-reflection practice and finding movement that works for you and your diabetes management plan. Instead of judging yourself, get curious about your expectations for what movement should be like.
Next time you find yourself saying you can’t do something, ask yourself, “Where did I learn that I can’t do this?” and listen to what comes up for you. Little shifts in addition to a commitment to movement can make diabetes management feel like a fun experiment instead of a life sentence.
As you start to move more, you give yourself more opportunities to reflect. As you reflect more, you get to know yourself better. And as you get to know yourself better, you can be your best advocate, your own best friend, and your own cheerleader when it comes to life, love, work, and of course, life with diabetes.
Fact checked on July 07, 2022
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