There are many theories on how high elevation effects health.
While the thin and drier air make rigorous exercise more difficult, the indirect effects of this can actually bring longer-term benefits.
Consider our national Olympic training center. Located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at an elevation of just over 6000 feet, this training facility is strategically located at an altitude that creates higher resistance on physical aerobic exercise, thereby, in theory, leading to better prepared athletes. Altitude training is a major form of preparation many athletes use, including Olympic runner Emma Coburn, and swimmer Michael Phelps.
Consider the analogy of a baseball player who practices swinging with two or three bats before coming up to home plate. The heavier ambient weight from the extra bats prepares (or, at least, tricks) his arm muscles into swinging stronger, for faster and further hits.
Or even consider the notoriety of long distance runners, many of whom come from the 7,000ft highlands of western Kenya. Part culture, part a running lifestyle, and part high elevation.
How does it work?
In high elevation, quotes researcher Ben Levine, M.D.,"you draw in less oxygen per breath than you would at lower altitudes. That means each breath will deliver less oxygen to your muscles. This may sound like a negative thing, but living in higher altitudes and getting used to breathing “thinner” air can enhance elite athletes’ athletic performance in competitions at lower altitude. "
Athletes put forth more effort to push through this barrier, leading to a positive condition called hypoxia. As they continue to train over time, they acclimate. This leads to higher red blood cell counts, which in turn brings more oxygen to the muscles Then, when exposed to a lower altitude location, the additional oxygen acts like an energy boost.
One of our trekking pole tester's photo from a hiking trip at Twin Lakes, California
But what about the average person?
While there is research that shows many benefits to living and exercising in moderately high elevations, such as lower mortality rates, and lower cardiovascular disease mortality, lower stroke rates and lower rates of certain types of cancer, does it actually lead to a higher metabolism and stamina?
One in-depth study found that higher elevation, after acclimating for one week, led to higher energy expenditure, and lower appetite.That's right! People can actually develop a naturally higher stamina simply by living in higher elevations. Long-term exposure to moderately high elevation as a weight-loss method is not new. But now more and more academic studies are confirming it. Yes, stamina and metabolism, can increase, if given time to acclimate, and the elevation is not too high.
Could this be why places like Summit County Colorado, have one of the highest longevity rates in the USA? Perhaps. More likely, the simple easy access to varied terrain, with an outdoor lifestyle culture more likely explain why many higher elevation cities like Boulder Co., Park City Utah, Truckee California, and Bend Oregon are known for healthy, fit lifestyles.
Either way, living in higher altitudes is likely a benefit to those who want to be more fit. Not only can it lead to a naturally higher stamina, but often these locations have excellent access to outdoor terrain for hiking, walking, mountain trekking, camping and other outdoor activities.
What if I live in low altitudes?
Most Americans live in altitudes under 2000 ft. Many population centers are located near low level bodies of water like bays, oceans, and major rivers. It's simply how human civilization has normally developed. If this is you, don't be discouraged. You can increase your stamina with many other methods:
- Consider starting a weekly hiking tradition to local county and state parks
- Involve the family. Waterfall hikes. neighborhood park walks, city day treks.
- Develop a healthy walking lifestyle everyday. Morning and evening walks. Lunchbreak walks. Push yourself to take short easy walks throughout the day.
- Perhaps you've been debating whether to join the gym. Now is the time, . . . and make it regular.
- Travel: Appalacian, Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains are all within a weekend trip access of many Americans. Make plans to visit national parks. Try snowshoeing or ski trip during the winter. Cabin in the mountains? The opportunities are endless
Overall, while many people who live in high elevation enjoy some of the health benefits of it, all people everywhere can work on developing a healthy fitness lifestyle that can increase stamina, and lose weight.
- Mike Cutler is a product tester for EarthTrek Gear, and outdoor hiking blogger. Also a major new trail contributor on the AllTrails app. His family lives in Reno, Nevada near California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
Further research resources