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Hunting Fitness: Put That Chicken Fried Aside

With or without expensive gym equipment, you can get in shape by hunting season — if you start now.

By John Jefferson

Ever wondered what Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett would look like if they were Texas hunters today? They might not be the rail-thin, frontier-hardened outdoorsmen depicted in literature and film. The easy lifestyle we enjoy today would likely have taken its toll on them, too. I can picture Davy coming home, as a lot of us have done, after a trying day at a less than stimulating job, sitting down on the couch with a cold drink and a bag of chips, watching the news before supper. Or Dan’l having a chicken-fried for lunch, not worrying about whether it was made from high-cholesterol beef or a grizzly bear flank.

And then the two good ol’ boys — namesakes of the most prestigious hunting club in North America — would jump in their four-wheel drives on Friday and head for their leases. After a night of more fattening food, they scarf down eggs and bacon for breakfast and beat it to their stands. The most effort expended would be the walk to the truck.

For most of us, the malady is self-induced — the excesses described above. The diagnosis, though, is a lot simpler than the cure.

That lifestyle could lead to an early grave. And deprive you of a lot of fun along the way.

There was a tragic incident a few years ago where a man coming down from a tree stand fell, striking his forehead on a cedar stump. He may have blacked out. When that occurs, you are helpless, out of control. Or he could have been climbing with a heavier load than he could tote and lost his grip. Or both. We’ll never know — he didn’t live to tell his story.

Steve Hall, TPWD’s Hunter and Boater Education Branch chief, cites a 30-year hunting incident study by Texas A&M that shows 47 non-firearm-related events. It is not clear how many of those were heart attacks and how many were falls from stands.

Hall analyzed the reports from 1998 to the present and found six fatal heart attacks. There may have been more, but unless hunting is mentioned, an incident may not be reported as hunting-related.

Most of the reported heart attacks involved people dragging game. And all of the heart attack victims were more than 50 years old.

Some of the falls could also have been heart-related. Robert Edmonson is Chief of Cardiology at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. He says the risk is two-fold: a hunter suffers syncope — blacking out because the heart does not pump enough blood to the brain — and he is in a remote area and doesn’t get help until it is too late. That happens without warning.

"Conditioning and dieting are important, but may not affect the danger of syncope (fainting) if underlying heart disease is already present," Edmonson says. “But they may prevent you from getting cardiomyopathy — diseases of the heart. Being in better condition will help you have fewer problems, but a hunter may still be vulnerable due to remoteness and doing things his body is not used to. People who have a heart condition need to let their doctors know they are hunters.”

A retired Austin physician and seasoned hunter, Joe Abell agrees about the risks of conditioning — and the benefits of being in good condition. “When facing a strenuous situation,” he says, “you are more vulnerable to heart attack or heat exhaustion if you over-exert in combination with extreme temperature conditions. A lot depends upon the condition the hunter is in.”

Hunting helps eliminate stress for most, but has unique stresses of its own. Environmental stresses are weather-oriented — heat, cold, wind, rain and snow. Others are geographically related, like altitude sickness, terrain grade, thick mud in the marsh, and having to push through high grass or dense brush.

Some are personally induced by heavier clothes, a greater load, fatigue, poor diet or body abuse. Then there are the things hunters don’t do except during hunting season — climbing into stands, toting, loading and skinning game. Being in good shape can make the hunt much more enjoyable. It’s like any other sport: you can play better if you are in shape.

Game Warden Lieutenant Cinda Brooks started her career as a registered nurse. She has an advanced degree in health promotion and kinesiology from UT and now teaches health, wellness, fitness, survival — defensive tactics — and firearms to Texas game wardens.

“Stress affects our performance in ways that help us, and stress also works against us,” she says. “When you see that big buck headed to your feeder, your body immediately responds by increasing your heart rate, accelerating the pace of breathing and boosting blood pressure. That makes you more alert, focused and ready.”

But you can have too much of a good thing. Brooks adds, “When heart rates go over about 160 to 170, you can get changes in vision, hearing and motor skills. At high heart rates, you can even freeze up or be unable to process information. You need to keep your heart rate in your normal range. A fit person has a lower heart rate than an unfit person.”

So what does she recommend to get in better shape?

“Don’t just be a weekend warrior,” she advises. “Make it a lifestyle. Exercise a minimum of three times a week. Allow your body rest days. Go through a gradual progression. Don’t overdo it or you’ll get sore, frustrated and lose interest. Listen to your body; it will tell you when you’ve overdone it.”

What you eat and drink matters, too. There’s a fad diet for every fetish. But unless you couple a lifestyle change with regular exercise, your weight loss could suffer from the yo-yo syndrome — going down during the diet, and coming right back up later.

Brooks suggests a more positive approach: “Make good nutritional choices that become lifetime habits. Follow the 90 percent rule. If you allow yourself that bowl of Blue Bell occasionally (10 percent of the time), you are more likely to stick to your wise choices for the long run.” Remember that in hunting camp!

Brooks’ dietary scheme is simple: “Balance, moderation and variety are the keys to healthy nutrition. A diet heavy in carbohydrates (50-55 percent), moderate in protein (30 percent) and low in fat (15 percent) is ideal. Just picture your plate — half the plate should be covered with vegetables, bread or pasta; a smaller amount of meat (about palm size); and just a little fat (olive oil is great for salad dressing and cooking). If your chicken-fried steak laps over the edges of your plate, you had better re-calculate — your palm isn’t that big!”

But even if you eat healthy all the time, that’s only part of the program. Brooks says: “Aerobic exercise involves using your big muscles to keep your heart rate elevated for an extended period of time. Your body adapts to the stress it is exposed to. Regular aerobic exercise will strengthen the heart so when you make it drag a deer carcass up a hill on a cold day, it will be ready. Aerobic exercises are walking, running, bicycling, swimming, water walking, tennis, racquetball or a combination of those. Even golfing counts as aerobic if you walk the course carrying your clubs.”

Aerobic exercise is a priority, but a balanced program needs to include strength training. Brooks, who has won six gold medals over the years in the World Police and Fire Games, says there are a jillion different strength training programs. Some are simple, requiring no equipment; others are complex, using sophisticated machines. Minimum, and most simple, would be a 15- to 20-minute program two to three days a week. She says to choose three upper body exercises, one for the abs and two lower body exercises.

Without gym equipment, the upper-body exercises could be pushups on the floor or vertically by leaning at an angle against a wall, tricep dips (using a bench or chair) or pull-ups. To exercise specific muscles used while hunting, try exercises such as raising and lowering an unloaded gun to the shooting position and swinging it as if shooting. Or wrap a rope around a stick and attach a weight. With arms extended, roll the weight up and down. This will strengthen your grip, arms and shoulders. If you have access to weights, choose bench presses, overhead presses, bicep curls, flys (for the triceps) or a “lat pull down” to work the shoulders and back.

Lower body exercises with no special equipment can include squats with back against the wall, heel raises to work the calves and lunges. With weights, you can increase the load.

And, finally, the abdominals. Strengthening the mid-section will help prevent muscle strains, especially to the back. “Besides,” Brooks added, “that will make you look better in camo! Work those abs by lying on your back and doing ‘curl ups’ instead of sit-ups. Let your abs contract and pull you up. Do some with a slight rotation of the upper body to work all the abdominal muscles.”

Should you join a health club? Not unless that’s what it takes to get you motivated toward exercise.

Health clubs can provide a motivational atmosphere, and offer specialized equipment, but they are more expensive than working out at home. Exercise equipment is often found at garage sales. The important thing is that you maintain a consistent program.

My walk-insistent Labradors keep me going. Remember what you did in P.E. — jumping jacks, squat thrusts or tricep dips on a park bench. In my neighborhood, there are 15 exercise stations along the hiking trail. Specifically to prepare for hunting, some people climb hills carrying a backpack full of rocks.

The best exercise tool is in your head, however. Have a positive mindset. Be sure the “inner coach” is working for you, not against you. Focus on where you are going — not how out of shape you are. My hunting dogs respond positively to praise and positive reinforcement. Do the same for yourself!

A lost pound is encouraging, but scales can be discouraging when they report bad news. Brooks explains: “Your focus must be on your commitment to exercise. As you develop muscle strength, the scales may be unchanged as your body composition swaps fat for muscle.”

And start today — don’t wait until September. Your body needs time to get used to exercising and build strength. During the summer, consider adding swimming or water walking to help beat the heat. If you work out all summer, you’ll be ready by the time hunting season rolls around.

As he got older, the late Mickey Mantle once said, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

You still can.

If you stick to a regular, three-times-a-week workout schedule that includes the exercises illustrated here, you’ll be better prepared for the rigors of hunting season.

Make sure your form is correct, and keep track of your progress with a notebook.

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