By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2023

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

—  Henry David Thoreau.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

—  John Muir.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

—  T.S. Eliot.

I’ve been fortunate to live at the junction of two very beautiful and popular, forested parks: Harpers Ferry National Park and C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal National Park, each with an abundance of wildlife present every day. There are several great hiking trails, an old canal towpath for walking or hiking, and some quiet country roads for exploring the peaceful area. We live at the base of Elk Ridge, or Elk Mountain (1,476 feet tall), known as Maryland Heights during the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln visited the area on October 2, 1862. He asked to see the Union fortifications and gun batteries on the mountain, but after a modest ascent of less than a mile, he and his escorting officer reached a fork in the trail, with a very steep climb ahead. Lieutenant Charles Morse later related, “I showed the way until we got to a path where it was right straight up, when Lincoln backed out…they turned and went down the mountain.” Lincoln is reported to have dryly remarked, “No, thanks, lieutenant, I’ve seen enough!”

It’s a beautiful area, and we moved in not long after my retirement from the U.S. Air Force. But the soft, sedentary lifestyle gradually took a toll on my body. By December 2015, I had reached a maximum, unhealthy weight of 256 pounds, had a 45.5-inch waistline, and was officially obese, with high blood pressure (175/110), and other related health problems. I was determined to do something about my failing health. I needed to lose a lot of weight by combining a proper balance of diet and exercise, but how much of each was right for me?

Eventually, during the first 10 months of 2016, I gradually lost 72 pounds, over 10 inches off my waist, and more than 35 percent of my body fat. In 2021, I lost an additional 12 pounds, and in 2022, I brought my weight down 12 more pounds, for a total reduction of 96 pounds! I’ve kept it off ever since, and feel much more comfortable and energetic. This is by far the lightest weight that I’ve attained in my entire adult life!

So, how did I do it? The most-visible element is exercise, specifically walking, or hiking. The only difference between the two is in duration and difficulty. A stroll through the local park on flat ground for just a mile or two is a walk, but covering 10 miles per day on a rough, hilly, country road is a hike. Exercise, however, is only 10 percent of any weight-loss effort, so you must combine it with a significant reduction in calories to achieve lasting results.

In general, you’ll burn approximately 100 calories per mile of walking or hiking, but since there are 3,600 calories in one pound, it takes 36 miles to permanently lose one pound. The hiking is mostly for muscle tone, fresh air, and overall health benefits.

Fortunately, I’m retired, so I have plenty of time each day for hiking our rough, country road a half-mile out and a half-mile back, numerous times. My wife and I were initially walking just two miles, twice per week, but that’s really not enough to accomplish much. I had to do more, much more.

Beginning in 2016, I gradually increased my daily hikes to two miles per day, and eventually to 14 miles per day for the next five years. Do you really need to walk that much? No, but I had plenty of time on my hands, and it certainly didn’t hurt me. I’ve since backed off to 10 miles per day, but I don’t do it all at once. I currently hike in small increments of two or three miles at a time, until I reach my daily goal of 10 miles. Typically, I’ll do six miles before lunch, and four more in the afternoon.

If you can manage just two miles per day (about 45 minutes), that’s much better than no exercise at all. It gets the blood pumping, builds muscle tone and stamina, and burns a modest amount of calories in the process. It also helps to prevent obesity, high blood pressure, dementia, and a host of other health-related problems.

Because of loose dogs and wildlife in my area (deer, black bear, coyotes, foxes, racoons, opossums, skunks, fishers [somewhat like a wolverine], snakes, etc.), I have to carry a walking stick, pepper spray, and a folding, pocket knife for various situations. I’ve never had to actually use the spray or knife yet, but I’ve been repeatedly charged by several dogs, which should legally have been either on a leash or behind a fence.

And only last fall, an angry, seven-point buck stomped one of his front hooves and lowered his antlers toward me from a mere 30 feet away, preparing to attack. I growled at him and stood my ground, with my sturdy walking stick in both hands, and we had a very uncomfortable standoff for the next 20 seconds, until he slowly turned away. So, you just never know what might transpire out here in the wooded countryside.

That particular, aggressive buck miraculously survived my state’s five-month-long, deer-hunting season (I took a long-range, muzzleloader shot at him in early December 2002, but missed), and I saw him alive on February 2, 2023, just 300 yards from my home.

Author hiking in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, 2012 and 2017.

Proper hiking boots or shoes are a very important consideration, especially since I usually walk on an extremely rough, tarred-and-chipped, asphalt, country road, which is tough on the soles of any footwear. In the first year, I totally destroyed a fine, $130 pair of Timberland hiking boots after only 750 miles (just two months!), so I realized that I needed tougher, stronger soles. I switched to Merrill Moabs (also $130), with their rugged, Vibram (Vulcanized rubber) soles, which normally last me about 3,300 miles (Moab-2s), or 11 months, although I made one pair last for 4,200 miles! They’ve just recently introduced the improved, Moab-3 model, with a redesigned tread pattern.

Only two weeks after I purchased my first pair of Merrells, I saw press photos of a Delta Force capabilities exercise at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in which the Delta operators were all wearing Merrell Moabs due to their comfort, superb support, durability, and especially their light weight compared to Army combat boots. I spent some time in special operations at Fort Bragg in the mid-1980s, and we always wanted lightweight, “shooter boots.” Now, as a retired, military officer, I can’t think of a higher recommendation for hiking boots than those in combat use by Delta Force!

Reducing my food intake was a much more difficult task. I used an online,“BMI (body mass index) Calculator” to determine my current weight category, and then I kept trying lower weight numbers until I saw my desired goal, 10 pounds below my maximum, “normal, healthy” weight per National Institutes of Health (NIH) standards. Getting there would require losing 72 pounds, however, so I had my work cut out for me.

Next, I used the NIH’s online “BMR (basal metabolic rate) Calculator” to determine how many total calories I should be consuming to reach and maintain my weight goal. I would have to permanently cut back from 2,200 calories per day to just 1,560 calories per day, a huge-but-necessary adjustment in eating habits.

While I now look better on the outside and certainly feel much better, the true test of success came in my blood test results over the next few years. My total cholesterol dropped from 206 to 168, my HDL (good cholesterol) levels went up from 44 to 75, my LDL (bad cholesterol) dropped from 122 to 75, triglycerides fell from 202 to 39, glucose went down from 107 to 83, my PSA number dropped from 2.2 to .8, and my average, blood pressure fell from 175/110 to a better-than-normal level of 111/58. So, yes, my exercise and weight-loss program was a total success! But, how did I do it?

I was determined to lose the weight naturally, with no dieting, no pills, no trendy gimmicks, no meetings, no programs, and no monitoring – totally on my own – by simply reducing my caloric intake permanently and increasing my daily hiking.

The main consideration for proper health, fitness, and weight loss is that it’s NOT a “diet.” Temporary “diets” or weight-loss programs don’t work in the long run, period. Doctors, Ph.Ds., nutritionists, and other health experts will tell you, “Don’t diet!” It’s not healthy, and you’ll usually go back to your old eating habits and regain all of the weight. This must be a permanent, lifestyle change in order to attain success, a permanent change in your eating habits.

Secondly, you must exercise. You can lose weight without exercising, but you’ll end up with unsightly skin folds and flaps if you don’t exercise to tone and tighten your muscles and skin. Most physical therapists say that after only four days without exercise, your muscles begin to atrophy, and before long, you’re too weak to exercise. The best and safest form of exercise is simply walking or hiking, not fast walking, jogging, or running. A proper minimum amount is 30 to 40 minutes per day, or one-and-a-half to two miles. If you have time available for more miles, that’s even better!

There are some other general requirements as well. First, practice moderation. This means no extreme measures of any kind; no diets, no fads or gimmicks, no fast walking or high-impact aerobics, etc. Just lead a normal, natural, sensible, well-balanced, moderate lifestyle. That’s simple enough. Next, avoid food temptation. If there are sugary or fattening foods or treats lying out in the open in your home, you’re going to eat them. So, get them out of sight or out of the house. It’s just human nature.

The same key point applies to alcohol. I enjoy alcoholic beverages as much as the next person, but they are loaded with calories. There are nearly 150 calories in 12 ounces of beer, six ounces of wine, or two ounces of whiskey. So, I’ve had to cut back to just one or two drinks per month, which has not really been a hardship.

You also need to stay hydrated with water. Most doctors recommend that you drink 64 ounces of water (more than five 12-ounce glasses) or similar liquid per day. That’s a lot, but I do it anyway. I’ve had to learn to avoid any liquids that contain calories, however. So, o no regular sodas, no juices, and almost no alcohol; just a lot of water and some zero-calorie diet sodas.

Weigh yourself often. You should do it at least twice per day, but I weigh myself closer to five or six times per day, just to see the effects of food and exercise on my body. And maintain your medical health. Continue to take care of any medical issues that you have, and consult a physician if you have any doubts or concerns about losing weight. Stay safe at all times.

Finally, two more very simple considerations that will help. Use small plates only. Salad plates are typically about 37-percent smaller than large dinner plates in overall surface area, so you will eat less food, but don’t pile it on higher to compensate. And, abstain from second helpings of food. You’re trying to lose weight, remember? You need less food, not more, so no second portions of anything, no matter how tasty. It’s called “portion control.” Supermodel Cindy Crawford has said that, “I eat whatever I want, just not as much as I want.” It’s true! You can eat any foods that you like, but you’d better learn how to calculate the calorie count first and eat in much smaller amounts.

In general, I only eat one regular, healthy meal per day (lunch), and limit that to 800 to 850 calories, at the most. I’ll have a morning snack (300 calories max.), and an afternoon snack (100 to 250 calories max.), but no full breakfast or dinner. Those would only add far too many calories when my daily limit is already a mere 1,560. We have to mentally get past the old, deeply-ingrained concept of eating three meals per day. It’s just not healthy in terms of weight loss, especially as we age. In addition, I don’t eat solid foods after 3:00 PM, and no liquids after 6:00 PM, except for just a little water.

You have to really, really want a healthy lifestyle in order to make this happen, but it’s not impossible, not at all. It’s just a very simple formula of how many calories you should be consuming per day, and how much exercise to want to incorporate in order to remain fit, healthy, and active. My basic philosophy is: “Don’t overthink it; just do it! Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s well worth it in the long run.”

I certainly hope that my “hiking-for-your-health” and weight-loss experience can be helpful and encouraging to others. In the end, it’s really not complicated: “Eat less, and exercise more.” The trick is in achieving just the right balance of both for your individual lifestyle and goals. Good luck, and stay healthy!

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The author, before and after losing 96 pounds!

Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is a published author, historian, hunter, and daily hiker. You may visit his website at: