Find out why trekking enthusiasts like Dr Joanne Woo love the sport.

By Fairoza Mansor in consultation with Mr Ray Loh, Exercise Physiologist, Sports Medicine and Surgery Clinic, Tan Tock Seng Hospital

In Oscar-nominated film Wild, a woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) treks more than 1,600km along Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in the United States — a long-distance route that stretches from the Southern California desert to the lush forests of Oregon.

Based on an autobiographical bestseller by Cheryl Strayed, the film portrays both the joys and dangers of embarking on a long journey on foot. Panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the sublimity of being in solitude among nature surely count as upsides. But the struggle of people trekking is real, with physical and mental challenges to endure.

Hiking vs Trekking

Although often used interchangeably with 'hiking', trekking is arguably the more arduous activity as it takes place over varied harsh terrains. Hikers, on the other hand, usually stick to established marked trails. However, both sports require "total body fitness", says Mr Ray Loh, Exercise Physiologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Sports Medicine and Surgery Clinic.

Benefits of Trekking

Specifically, trekking and hiking help to build up aerobic, muscular and anaerobic fitness, which is especially helpful for those looking to lose weight.

Trekking in Mother Nature

Already svelte, standing at 1.62m tall, trekking enthusiast Dr Joanne Woo certainly doesn't need to lose weight, nor is she the least bit concerned about the finer differences between trekking and hiking.

Since her first trekking expedition up Mount Kinabalu in the East Malaysian State of Sabah in March 2012, the 28-year-old dentist at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics has been hooked on the sport.

Even though Dr Woo professes to have been slightly under-prepared for the two-day, one-night climb that took about 15 hours to complete (discounting the rest period at the base camp mid-journey), she certainly enjoyed the challenge.

"Trekking is demanding and requires stamina, endurance and most importantly, mental strength", says Dr Woo. What kept her going despite being physically spent was the breathtaking view she was expecting to see at the summit of Mount Kinabalu.

Dr Woo has also climbed Mount Rinjani, an active volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia and most recently in October 2014, Halasan, the highest mountain on Jeju Island in South Korea.

Of the three trekking trips, she considers the three-day, two-night Rinjani climb to be her most difficult climb yet due to the volcanic terrain. "For every step I took, I slid back half a step. My legs felt numb and I definitely surpassed my physical limits," she recounts, still amazed that she managed to complete the feat.

"It's a reminder that whenever I encounter any difficulties in life, as long as I set my mind to it, I will be able to overcome any obstacles and achieve my goals."

​How to Get Fit for Trekking

Besides mental strength, it helps to be physically fit when climbing. "A prerequisite for trekking is mobility and functional fitness," says Mr Loh. A person keen to trek should be able to move in full range freely without pain so as to prevent the risk of injury.

Before setting off on a trekking expedition, train yourself first with walking, especially if you are not usually active. Gradually add slopes or small hills to your normal walk to build stamina. Only after getting accustomed to regular walks should you move on to trails, increasing the distance little by little.

Dr Woo maintains her fitness with callisthenics usually done at home to the videos of famous fitness trainer Jillian Michaels (one of the coaches in American reality series The Biggest Loser).

The fitness routine commonly includes sets of crunches, side planks push-ups, squats and lunges to build strength. Prior to a trekking trip, Dr Woo makes sure she does her callisthenics routine every weekday for about an hour each time.

On weekends, she goes for a short day trek for about three hours at Singapore's local nature reserves, such as MacRitchie Reservoir and Bukit Timah, to improve physical fitness and strength.

Trekking Preparation Tips

Take a leaf out of Dr Joanne Woo's book of trekking experience before you go trekking and embark on your adventure.

  • Train your physical fitness by trekking at our local reserves (although more often than not, overseas terrain is harsher than what we have locally).
  • For peace of mind, hire an accredited trekking guide when attempting treks overseas.
  • Never underestimate Mother Nature. Prepare for cold weather and higher altitudes with the appropriate tracking gear, quality thermal wear, and accessories as well as hiking boots suitable for the terrain.
  • Ensure adequate hydration throughout the trek.
  • Invest in trekking poles which help to ease pressure on your knees, especially when going downhill.
  • Bring along a first aid kit. Plasters and antiseptics are a must as bruises, scrapes, and cuts are inevitable. Insect repellent is also useful.
  • Keep loved ones informed. Usually, there is no means of communication with the outside world when trekking on a mountain, so it is important that someone knows when to expect your return and be prepared to raise the alarm if necessary.

Download the HealthHub app on Google Play or Apple Store to access more health and wellness advice at your fingertips.

Read these next: