How Hiking Helped Me Heal My Body and Manage My Type 2 Diabetes

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As I spent more time outside, I felt more at home in my body, inspired by my surroundings, and connected to something greater than myself.

In May 2018, standing at the top of a mountain near San Diego, California, I felt more at peace than I had in more than a decade.

I had just left two jobs in a span of 5 months without a backup plan. I was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and I just kissed my health insurance goodbye. Why was I so calm?

As I looked out from the summit, I took some deep breaths, savoring this sense of serenity I had found, when the answer hit me like a freight train. 

“I’m hiking my feelings.”

I didn’t see the doom and gloom of a chronic illness — I saw it as an opportunity to finally take care of myself and prioritize my health

I grew up an athletic kid, starting with gymnastics and cheerleading in elementary school and dabbling in different sports in middle school. I was an all-star and varsity cheerleader in high school, walked on to the women’s rowing team at the University of Kansas, and was a competitive skydiver after college.

I worked with some of the best coaches, nutritionists, and trainers in each sport I participated in, so I had all the information I needed to live a happy, healthy life.

However, like a lot of folks, life dealt me a tough hand. I survived a sexual assault in college and the aftermath of that was riddled with heavy drinking to numb the pain and avoid flashbacks.

I made questionable choices due to a severe lack of self-worth. My grades slipped, leading to completely changing my course of study, followed by periods of suicidal ideation.

I buried this pain so deep I didn’t realize where it was coming from, I just felt its effects.

On top of that, 23 of my friends died during the 4 years I was skydiving, and I left the sport when my coach was convicted on two felony counts of sexual assault.

I felt like a punching bag and life kept delivering blow after blow

After I retired from skydiving, I jumped back into my corporate career. From the outside looking in, this was a smooth transition. I had it all: a six-figure salary, platinum-level healthcare provided by my employer, a great house in San Diego, a brand-new car, and the ability to travel internationally on a whim.

Despite having all of the information and resources I needed to take care of myself and lead a healthy life, the trauma was too much to bear. No matter how many times I relocated or changed careers, my pain followed me wherever I went.  

As my responsibilities increased at work and more people and clients depended on me, I started having panic attacks near daily, sometimes twice per day. I was drinking a bottle of wine by myself after work more often than I wasn’t.

Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes saved my life

I realize saying “diabetes is the best thing that ever happened to me” may sound ridiculous, but it was a major catalyst for change. It was serious enough to snap me out of my trauma-induced fog, but not “too serious” to cause me to throw in the towel on life altogether. 

I am thankful my doctor was able to make diabetes management easy to understand.

While there are a whole host of factors that impact our blood sugar levels, she narrowed them down into four categories:

If I found myself outside of my target ranges, I scanned this quadrant. What did I eat yesterday? Did I move my body for at least 30 minutes? Am I taking my medications as prescribed and on time? How am I managing my stress? 

If I wanted to be the best diabetes patient my doctor had ever seen, I couldn’t eat ice cream for breakfast or polish off a bottle of wine in one sitting.

I cleaned up my nutrition plan and started paying attention to how food made me feel, with an eye for the ingredients that kept my blood sugars regulated throughout the day.

I set alarms to remind me to take my medications and made a production out of it, complete with my husband singing, “time to take your medicine!” every time the alarms went off.

I started walking for 30 to 45 minutes in the morning, which quickly became my favorite part of my day

No scrolling, no checking the headlines, no checking emails, just wake up and walk.

When I focused my attention on my health first thing in the morning, I found that the rest of my day didn’t feel like it was slipping away from me, and I became very protective of this time.

While this was a difficult physical activity for me at first, it didn’t feel difficult. I didn’t dread doing it. In fact, I loved it and looked forward to it.

On these walks, I skipped the podcasts and music, and when I was left alone with my thoughts and the sounds of nature around me, I was able to clear my head. 

After a while, my neighborhood walk got easier, so I graduated to local trails and started hiking.

As I spent more time outside, I felt more at home in my body, inspired by my surroundings, and connected to something greater than myself.

This was exercise that didn’t feel like exercise. Not only was this great for my physical health, contributing to more than 70 pounds lost since my diagnosis, it was also incredible for my mental health

I realized that thanks to diabetes, I had been hiking my feelings instead of eating or drinking them

Then, I started exploring what that actually meant. On a backpacking trip across Catalina Island in June 2018, I connected the dots between the trauma and how it manifested in my mind and body.

Knowing the outdoors helped me heal in such powerful ways, I wanted to share this story with anyone who would listen.

My husband and I sold everything we owned and bought a 1998 Chevrolet Chevy Van to live in full-time while we explored where “hiking my feelings” could take us. 

Since that fateful day in 2018, we have hosted more than 200 events around the United States, sharing the story of how hiking helped me heal my mind and body.

In November, we are kicking off our “Take a Hike, Diabetes” campaign with a 30-day program for diabetes awareness month.

We’ve partnered with a registered dietitian, wilderness therapist, and diabetes advocates to address three of the four areas that impact blood sugar levels in the body: nutrition, movement, and stress.

We are on a mission to hike 1 million miles for diabetes awareness, and while I’d love to tackle that myself, it’s going to be a lot more fun to do this with our community. Let’s defeat diabetes together, one step at a time. Join us at hikingmyfeelings.org/diabetes to learn more.


Sydney Williams is an adventure athlete and author based in San Diego. Her work explores how trauma manifests in our minds and bodies and how the outdoors can help us heal. Sydney is the founder of Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit organization on a mission to improve community health by creating opportunities for people to experience the healing power of nature. Join the Hiking My Feelings Family, and follow along on YouTube and Instagram.  





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