Appalachian Trail Research Project 2007
The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine. (Image courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Dept. of the Interior)
A leisurely hike in the woods is one thing. A continuous five-month, 2,000-mile trek through the Appalachian Mountains is something entirely different.
A hearty group of individuals known as thru-hikers annually test the limits of human endurance when they embark on a spring-through-summer hike from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.
John Davis, Alma’s Dana Professor of Exercise and Health Science, and a team of students will investigate the physiological and nutritional challenges that thru-hikers face. The researchers will conduct a series of tests on the hikers before they start on the trail in March and April, during their hike at locations along the way, and at the conclusion of the trip in August and September.
Testing will include a number of physiological measures, including heart rate, blood pressure, aerobic fitness, body composition and muscle strength.
“The hike along the Appalachian Trail is one of the toughest ultra endurance activities that occurs a hiking day-after-day, about 15 to 20 miles a day, for four to five months,” says Davis.“ I‘ve always been interested in the limits of human performance and the kinds of changes that take place during this kind of endurance activity. This research is a good fit for my academic interest.”
Davis has 20 subjects lined up for testing with hopes of increasing that number to 50. He leaves in March for Springer Mountain in Georgia to begin administering pretests to his subjects.
“I expect to find that people get in better shape as they go along, that their aerobic fitness goes up and they lose body fat,” says Davis, who is on a winter term sabbatical.
“There are several other factors to study,” he says. “For example, are there differences in male and female physiological responses? Also, only 20 percent of the people who start the hike finish. Why do people stop? I want to look at attrition. The reasons for stopping may not always be physiological. Some may stop for psychological or personal reasons.”
Davis also will consider age. Most thru-hikers fall in the 25-and-under or 50-and-older age groups.
“To date, no studies have comprehensively examined the physiological and nutritional challenges that thru-hikers face,” says Davis. “This research will be helpful to future long distance hikers and the scientific community. It will help us answer the question: How far can humans push themselves?”
Previous research by Davis includes studies on the effects of moderate altitude exposure on exercise and cardiovascular responses and the use of resistive exercise as a means of improving physical function in the elderly. Davis also teaches one of the few higher education anatomy classes in which undergraduate students work on human cadavers.