By Jeff Keeling
I was driving over a rise just north of Gray Monday, headed back toward Johnson City from Kingsport, when they appeared in my view: two sights that perfectly represent the opportunities and challenges facing our region’s overall health.
Far in the distance, looming beautifully and shimmering green in the mild haze, was Hump Mountain. Rising 5,587 feet above sea level, Hump lies on a gorgeous, strenuous section of the Appalachian Trail running roughly 13 miles from Carver’s Gap to Highway 19-E (or vice versa, for those who want to gain elevation overall).
Along with the Roan Massif, Round, Jane and Grassy Ridge balds, and Little Hump, Hump Mountain offers locals a visual feast from various vantage points that, in my opinion, is nearly unparalleled in this great country. More to the point, the easily accessible high country with its many trails is a veritable playground/workout space offering clean air, abundant flora and fauna, and peace and quiet.
Closer to home (though the high country isn’t far), all the local towns and cities offer a variety of enjoyable trails. The lovely and talented Angela and I frequently run on trails behind ETSU (three minutes away); cycle and run on the Tweetsie Trail (1.4 miles from home); and hike the steep, wooded, beautiful trails of Buffalo Mountain (10 minutes away).
These activities aren’t expensive, most people can do them, and their benefits are immense. A webmd.com brief article lists these benefits of hiking: lower risk of heart disease; improved blood pressure and blood sugar levels; boosted bone density; building lower body strength and strengthening the core; improving balance; weight control; and mood-boosting.
The article quotes the American Hiking Society’s president, Gregory Miller, as saying that research shows hiking has a positive impact on combating the symptoms of stress and anxiety. I can attest to that, having utilized a 30-minute, mostly easy run in the ETSU woods late Monday afternoon to de-stress about three-quarters of the way through a long workday.
In short, we live in one of the finest areas possible to enjoy the kind of activities that play a critical role in achieving and maintaining good health. And as Eastman Chemical Co.’s chief human resources officer, Perry Stuckey, had told me just minutes before I caught my glimpse of the Hump, the relative health status of our region’s population still needs marked improvement. Stuckey’s on the boards of Healthy Kingsport and Healthier Tennessee and has decades of HR experience – he knows what he’s talking about.
Taken collectively, our overall rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions cost us dearly in terms of health care spending, quality of life and economic competitiveness. Stuckey mentioned that, along with exercise and stress reduction (intertwined factors, I might add), food choices are a critical component. And in the foreground of my I-26 vision, fortunately not blocking out Hump Mountain, a set of golden arches rose 100-plus feet above the landscape – a symbolic representation of one of our greatest population health challenges.
I don’t wish to sound pedantic, preachy or superior. I love this region. I love its mountains, streams and byways that invite physical activity and meditation. I love people as my chosen worldview exhorts me to do, and as the Spirit enables me to put into action – when I allow it.
Our opportunity for increased prosperity, spread through a broader portion of our population, is real. We live in a beautiful, culturally rich place with more than its share of truly good, friendly people. But among other things, we have got to get healthier. So go take a hike. You almost certainly won’t regret it.