In December of 2019, Gaurav headed for his first high-altitude trek to Kedarkantha — overweight, underprepared, and with a BMI that was way above normal. He barely made it to the first campsite before his legs gave up on him, and he had to take the decision of returning home.
Dejected but determined, Gaurav joined a gym and worked out with unflinching focus. In October 2020, a little less than a year after the Kedarkantha incident, Gaurav summited Brahmatal Top. He was 10 kilos lighter, 4 points lower on the BMI scale, and a lot stronger.
Gaurav worked on his fitness for one whole year after facing health issues on the Kedarkantha trek. He came back to do the Brahmatal trek in Oct’2020.
Unfortunately, the first half of Gaurav’s story is what we end up seeing more frequently than we’d like.
Given the sedentary lifestyles that many trekkers have been leading due to the lockdown, a sizable number of trekkers have higher BMIs and poor fitness levels. The result is that they are either unable to complete the trek or find it too hard.
So in this article, we want to share some observations about why BMI matters and what you can do if you have a high BMI.
Why BMI matters
Having a high BMI by itself does not affect your trekking performance. What matters is your fitness levels. We have had many trekkers with high BMI successfully complete treks with adequate preparation.
But here’s what we have observed.
Having a high BMI, especially when you’re overweight, affects your trek in three ways:
1. It makes you more susceptible to AMS
Your body goes through all kinds of changes when it is on a high-altitude trek.
Your lungs and heart start to work harder as altitude increases. As altitude increases, the air pressure decreases, which means that there is a lower concentration of oxygen in the air.
Consequently, there’s less oxygen in your blood. Your body tries to make up for this decrease in oxygen. Your heart starts pumping faster and your breathing also becomes faster.
This is something that happens to every single trekker, regardless of weight.
But here’s where BMI makes a difference.
If your high BMI is a reflection of being overweight or poor fitness levels, it will affect your body much worse.
Sandhya UC, the co-founder of Indiahikes, puts it in perspective. She says, “Any physical activity that you do on a high altitude trek is going to be 5 times tougher than when you do it normally. When you have a high BMI, you are exerting a lot more. You will consume a lot of oxygen that is circulating in your blood. That makes you highly susceptible to altitude sickness.”
For more on the effects of high altitude on your body, click here.
2. You are more injury-prone, especially while descending
The other aspect to consider is the load your legs have to carry. Every gram counts when you are trekking, and that includes your body weight too.
“Ankle and knee injuries are a lot more common if you haven’t worked on your muscles. And individuals with higher BMI are at greater risk of facing injuries if they go for a trek without preparation,” points out Sandhya.
Additionally, climbing uphill or downhill can get particularly challenging when carrying extra body weight. “We’re noticing an increasing trend of people opting to offload their backpacks because they’re not fit enough. This is not good for trekking,” says Suhas Saya, the head of Experience Coordinators at Indiahikes.
Individuals with higher BMI are at greater risk of facing injuries. Picture by Nirantharajith.
3. It ruins your overall experience
This is something that is tough to quantify.
Being fit and ready for a trek exponentially enhances your entire experience and allows you to absorb the sights and sounds around you.
On the other hand, when you’re ill-prepared and struggling through the trek, you don’t have the energy to take in the views or be together with the team. You’re constantly lagging behind, trekking with just the sweeper, and you’re always wondering when will this end?
It defeats the very purpose of heading out for what could potentially be an incredibly transformative experience.
Our Head of Content, sums it up through her own personal experience in this post.
Having said that, we’ll talk about what you can do if you have a high BMI.
Questions you may have
1. I have a high BMI. Can I sign up for a trek?
The simple, straightforward answer is — Yes, you can.
But it comes with a set of T&C.
While a high BMI can indicate high body fat, it does not necessarily reflect an individual’s health or fitness level.
We have, however, noticed that those with a higher than normal BMI tend to be overweight and have poor fitness levels. In such cases, the importance of having a good fitness routine and sticking to it consistently cannot be overemphasized.
At Indiahikes, we recommend you have a BMI of 26 or less if you are signing up for any of our treks.
However, if your BMI number is over what we have mentioned, we suggest you speak to our Experience Coordinators as early as possible to discuss how to get trek-ready.
We understand that an individual’s fitness cannot be judged on a single number, which is why we take a holistic look at your lifestyle, fitness routine, and trekking experience before recommending a trek and suggesting a well-thought-out regimen.
Co-Founder & COO
We can’t look at BMI individually, we have to look at other parameters too. A short person with a high BMI is at a disadvantage vs. a tall person with a high BMI. Age matters. A younger person with a high BMI will find trekking relatively easier than an older person with a comparable BMI. Gender also matters. Women with higher BMI are at greater risk vs. men with comparable BMIs. This is what our research and years of taking trekkers on high altitude treks tells us.
2. But I’ve had friends/family who have trekked with little or no prior preparation!
Having seen many trekkers head out into the mountains, almost on a whim, and then face the consequences, Sandhya points out several important factors.
“You are putting yourself at considerable risk if you have high BMI. You are going to struggle your way to the top because you haven’t taken the time to get your body ready. Will power can take you, and many times, it will take you. But, in the process, you will be doing a lot of damage to your body.
Climbing is not an easy task, and you have to prepare your muscles for climbing. You will be wearing out your muscles if you don’t exercise enough and go on a high-altitude trek. Think about it; if your weight is 10 -20 kg over what you should ideally weigh, it is like carrying an extra backpack of that weight.
Climbing requires you to prepare your muscles for the challenges it comes with. Picture from Indiahikes archive
Additionally, on very high-altitude treks, we have noticed that those who suffer from AMS have above-normal BMI. They struggle to climb up, deplete their blood’s oxygen and thereby make themselves more susceptible to altitude sickness. In fact, instances of HAPE and high BMI go together. I am not saying that it’s only those with high BMI, but, from the number of cases we have seen, there is a correlation,” explains Sandhya.
3. How do I get trek-ready?
- Be upfront about your BMI and fitness levels – The more we know, the more we can help. And this includes providing you with a comprehensive fitness plan that will help you get trek ready!
- Pick the right trek – Speak to our experience coordinators, read about treks, do your research, and pick one that is right for your fitness level. It’s always better to build up from easy treks to tougher ones. It allows you to taste success which will help build your confidence and motivate you to work towards a more challenging climb.
- Give yourself time to get prepared – Fitness is not an overnight process. Commit to a proper fitness routine at least 1-2 months before your trek date.
- Make cardio a part of your fitness regimen – Start with brisk walking 3-4 times a week. Add a light jog as the weeks progress and build your pace to completing 5 km in less than 37-40 minutes. If you are above 45 years, aim at doing a 5 km jog in 40-45 minutes. If jogging is not quite your thing, try to walk 10 km in under 90 minutes or cycle 22 km in 60 minutes.
- Include strength training – Walking uphill and downhill can be hard on your thighs and knees. Incorporate leg-specific exercises such as squats at least thrice a week. Integrate activities that help build your shoulder muscles. After all, you will be lifting a backpack and walking for long periods.
- Mimic ascents and descents with stair climbing – Climbing stairs is a great way to build cardiovascular strength and endurance. Once you get comfortable with the activity, challenge yourself by climbing with a packed backpack.
- Diet matters – Make healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables a part of your meals and lay off the junk food. Your body will feel the difference, and thank you for it.
|Pro tip – Get yourself a pair of trekking poles|
Trekking poles act as additional legs and take on a significant part of the load, provide much-needed balance during those tricky sections and reduce the impact on your knees. Don’t want to buy them? Rent them!
For a detailed week-by-week fitness plan, read our article ‘Trek Fitness Guide for High Altitude Treks.’
4. What kind of treks should I sign up for?
Our Experience Coordinator Nandana weighs in.
She says, “Your BMI, previous trek experience, and fitness levels will determine which trek you should go on.
If you have a high BMI, and this is your first trek, or don’t have a very consistent workout routine, we recommend starting with an easy-moderate one. These treks have gradual ascents and descents and do not put too much pressure on your body. These treks also allow you to understand how your body will react to high altitudes. But, a word of caution, these treks also require significant physical preparation. Some of our easy-moderate treks are Dayara Bugyal, Deoriatal Chandrashila, and Kedarkantha.
If your BMI is high, but you have previous high-altitude trek experience or have a good fitness routine, you can go for moderate difficulty treks too. To go for these, you do require good endurance and fitness. These treks have longer days, higher ascents, and descents, and there may be boulder sections. So that does require a higher level of cardio and strength training. So if you are very fit and you’ve been consistent with your fitness routine, you can go ahead with moderate treks. Some of the treks you can consider are Hampta Pass, Valley of Flowers, Tarsar Marsar Kashmir Trek, the Brahmatal Trek, and the Phulara Ridge Trek.”
Having guided many trekkers with higher BMIs to complete their treks successfully, Nandana sums it up for us without hesitation.
|Our Trekker’s Share Their Personal Experiences|
Nothing motivates us quite like hearing success stories from those in a similar situation! We’ve had many trekkers with high BMI complete their treks successfully. And it happened only because they made fitness a priority. Read on to find out how they went about preparing for it –
My BMI was off the charts, and I was leading a very unhealthy lifestyle. One of my close friends asked me if I wanted to sign up for a trek and take it up as a challenge and use this opportunity to get fitter. I started preparing two months before the trek. My friends and I hired a trainer to come and train us at home an hour a day for six days/week. It was quite hardcore – a combination of strength training, weights, and cardio. We worked on specific goals such as endurance and strengthening our legs and back. I would also go for a run 2-3 times a week. I also altered my diet significantly and reduced my carb and sugar intake.
To be honest, the trek wasn’t the easiest. On the summit day, we had to trek for nine hours, and that was challenging. But, I was confident from the beginning that I would be able to do it because I had prepared for it. Fitness has become part of my lifestyle now. The trek showed me the benefits of living a healthy life.
– Rihand, Hampta Pass, July 2021
Before I signed up for the trek, I wasn’t a workout person at all nor was I conscious about health. My BMI was around 31 and I was really unfit. This was my first trek and my brother encouraged me to sign up for it. I started preparing for the trek 2 months before the start date.
I hired a gym trainer and told him to specifically train me for a Himalayan trek. My objective was to complete the trek successfully. The first time I went for a jog, I could only do 3 km and it took me around 50-55 mins. After that, I knew where I stood in terms of my fitness levels.
I started putting in the hours. I switched to a low-carb, high protein diet. Initially, I would get dizzy after working out for just half an hour. But slowly, as the trek date got closer, I was able to build up to 1-1.5 hour sessions every day. We focused a lot on leg strengthening exercises. In the morning, I used to do cardio by going for walks and jogs. Towards the end, I could finish a 5k in 41 mins. I could feel myself getting stronger from the inside.
I didn’t find the trek too difficult. I was mentally and physically prepared for it. My biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that we need to challenge our bodies. Now that I’ve seen how my body changed, I feel our bodies need it. I know that if I sign up for a more difficult trek, I will have to prepare for 4 months instead of 2. And that might, over the course of time, lead me to living a fitter and healthier life.
– Shreyash, Hampta Pass, August 2021
I started a proper training routine a month and a half before the Bhrigu Lake Trek. Physical activity was always part of my daily routine, but I amped it up after I signed up for the trek. I used to jog for 45 mins to an hour every day, coupled with light weights training. At home, I incorporated yoga and HIIT into my workout routine. As the weeks went back, my stamina and endurance levels got better. I was also mindful of my diet and sleeping routine. It was my first high-altitude Himalayan trek, so I took a holistic approach to the whole thing.
I did find the trek difficult because I had issues with my balance. But by the time I finished it, I had learned so much. In fact, I have already signed up for my next trek with Indiahikes. I feel there is always room for improvement, and I have brought back a lot of learnings. I learned about my pain points during the trek, and working on those before I head out on my next one will be very crucial.
– Srilagna, Bhrigu Lake Trek, July 2021
If you’ve trekked on a high altitude trek with a high BMI we would love to know how was your experience and what were some of your learnings.