Healthy Living

Sometimes even getting inspired to reach for the TV remote can seem an effort. So, if you were asked to climb a mountain, would you have it in you to complete the task? Three Canadian Blood Services employees who participated in a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro this past summer believe that, while not everyone may be able to climb mountains, most can find the inspiration within themselves to exercise more and enjoy the many benefits that come from doing so.

Tim Williams was one of a team of 25 who climbed Africa’s tallest mountain this summer to raise funds for the Campaign For All Canadians to help build Canada’s national public cord blood bank.

“I’ll start with a confession: I’m certainly not a mountaineer, marathon runner or someone who regularly attends the gym with a regular training regimen,” says Tim, a regional partnership specialist in Ottawa.

In training for the climb he worked on increasing his strength and cardiovascular capacity, spending more time on the treadmill to prepare for the long climb.

“Living in rural Ontario made it very easy to find long trails to hike – usually pushing a jogging stroller with 60 to 80 pounds of children – or mountain biking and towing that same weight,” says Tim. “My children were a big part of my training and provided some inherent motivation for me to succeed.

“Putting enough miles on my new hiking boots before the climb and making sure that I was going to be comfortable in the special hiking gear were the unexpected types of training. My neighbours certainly got a good chuckle watching me cut the lawn in hiking boots. I wore them everywhere!”

Dr. Tanya Petraszko, a medical consultant in Canadian Blood Services’ Vancouver office, took a similar approach when it came time to train for the Kilimanjaro climb.

“I’m usually very active and exercise relentlessly, but I had no extra time to train,” says Tanya. “I started doing longer runs and regular hikes. Every chance that I could, I would do an extra hike. Whenever I was with my children, we would ride bikes or hike, which we normally do — although they grumbled about it much less now that it was ‘Kili’ training.”

Fellow Kilimanjaro team member, Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, who is the project director for cord blood at Canadian Blood Services, believes not knowing what to expect helped in her training ritual.

“I actually read or researched very little about the climb. I didn’t want to go into it with any pre-conceived notions,” she explains. “I trained so I would be physically able to do the climb. I did many practice hikes in Gatineau [Park, near Ottawa], as well as added walking and running to increase my cardio and strength-training activity. I’ve always been fairly active and play soccer and do Zumba [dance exercise] regularly, so the adjustment to the training schedule wasn’t too bad.”

It seems all that training and regular exercise paid off when it came to the big event.

“The actual climb was easier than I expected. It’s a lot easier than the Grouse Grind, a popular hike in Vancouver,” claims Tanya who used ‘the Grind’ as part of her training.

Heidi agrees, adding, “The climb was out of my comfort zone, but I am so glad I was able to partake in such an amazing adventure! It was not at all what I expected.”

Altitude seemed the biggest obstacle on the trek up Kilimanjaro.

“Battling altitude required a strong mental approach, and having great support from team members made it possible and a lot of fun,” says Tim. “Our Summit Day was the day that really put the training to the test as we went from 15,500 feet to 19,341 feet in a single day and then had to come back down to 15,500 feet.”

Their advice to those of us reading this on the couch as we contemplate where we left the TV remote?

“If you don’t feel like exercising, just trick your brain,” suggests Tanya. “Put on your exercise clothes, go outside and tell yourself that you are just going to visit the neighbour, check the garden, or get a newspaper. Ninety-nine per cent of the battle is getting off the couch. And once you are out there, it’s not that hard to go for a little walk or a short jog.”

“Little things everyday make a difference,” adds Heidi. “You can do sit ups or squats while watching TV or take the stairs instead of the elevator. People often think they need a lot of time to commit to physical fitness or spend hours in a gym to be fit, but I really believe in the quality of a workout instead of the quantity. Find something you enjoy doing and keep at it!”

A little friendly competition may not hurt either.

“Do an activity with a friend, it’s more fun. If you can’t do it together, then do it separately, but challenge each other,” says Tanya.

Tim can vouch for the positive effects of exercise: “Getting in shape for Kilimanjaro was very rewarding as I felt absolutely wonderful after completing my routine … healthier mentally and physically.”

True motivation can come from thinking about what it would be like if you couldn’t exercise even if you wanted to.

“It’s easy to forget that there are many people who have no choice and cannot exercise,” says Tanya. “Think of the patients with leukemia waiting for a transplant. It was easy to hike Kilimanjaro compared with what they are facing.

“If you are able to move, then take advantage of the gift of health and your health will improve further.”

Photography by Robin Hibberd and Dr. Graham Sher