Hiking Your Way to Health by Jaclyn Jacobsen

We promised to give you examples of amazing women throughout The Outdoor Journal Tour's Empowerment and Wellness campaign, #wehiketoheal. This week's featured, powerhouse woman fought her way back to health from an eating disorder, depression and a rare autoimmune disease that caused full body paralysis. Throughout Jaclyn's struggles, she has turned to hiking and nature while encouraging the women around her to do the same. She has a gigantic heart and just being around her makes you feel stronger, more confident and more at peace with yourself. We couldn't be happier to share her story with all of you.  

Hiking Your Way to Health by Jaclyn Jacobsen

From a very young age, I was always the “chubby kid”. I was overweight, had high cholesterol and an unhealthy obsession with food, which led to my battle with anorexia. After years of treatment, I recovered but my recovery quickly turned into overindulgence. Making up for lost time, I ate a lot and my weight steadily increased to over 200 lbs. My diet consisted of bagels, pancakes, and the Friday night family tradition of pizza. 

By my freshman year of college, I decided to make a change. I threw out all my junk food and replaced it with salads, wraps, fruits and veggies- all around healthier food choices. I also incorporated daily workouts and worked my way up from walking a mile to running sprints, weight training and the occasional hike.

Within six months, I had lost 70 lbs, which was a huge accomplishment, but it wasn’t about the number on the scale. What really meant the most was how I felt physically and emotionally. I felt free and motivated to stay on my journey toward health and wellness.

However, in January 2009 I hit another roadblock. I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. GBS is an autoimmune disease that affects the peripheral nervous system. The pathway from the brain to your muscles is slowly cut off, leading to paralysis. I lost movement in the upper and lower extremities and, finally, the cranial (facial) muscles. My independence was gone. I had to be fed, bathed and cared for 24/7. My initial treatment slowed the progression of the disease and allowed me to be transferred to an in-patient physical therapy facility.

Eventually, when my condition worsened again, I was given a more invasive treatment known as plasmapheresis. After a few months of treatment, I started noticing my capability for movement increasing. I was able to feed, dress and bathe myself again (with supervision) which felt like a miracle. But it also felt like starting from square one. I lost the majority of my muscle mass and had to re-learn how to walk, write, stand and perform all basic functions we take for granted on a daily basis.

This was a monumental turning point. The “big” picture became clear. I was much more appreciative of life and what could be done with it. I had a purpose. At that point, I knew I wanted to help people. My anorexia happened for a reason. My paralysis happened for a reason. I didn’t know it then, but my path toward health and wellness was just beginning.

Throughout my struggles, being connected with nature offered me much comfort. I could escape all the "noise" surrounding me and truly "hear" myself. Once you've experienced falling into the deepest, darkest void of your mind and being paralyzed, while having all independence stripped away, there is a vigor that develops to constantly move and challenge your body and spirit in ways you never thought you could. 

I started with moderate hikes at Ramapo Reservoir and gradually worked my way to bouldering at Mount Tammany (both in NJ). I now hike at least once per week as a form of self-care. 

Nature offers me challenge, insight, pain, motivation and most importantly, vulnerability. Self-reflection is one of the hardest skill sets to maintain and develop and I find that when in nature, especially while hiking and pushing my body, I am able to better challenge my mind and my spirit.

By sharing my story, I hope to encourage the women around me. I was introverted for much of my life, so coming out of my shell wasn't easy. The pain got me out of my comfort zone. Allowing myself to experience negative emotions and reflect on areas of my character that needed improvement helped me grow immensely. Facing your own demons is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, but change and growth require some discomfort.

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Jaclyn Jacobsen has a B.A. in Philosophy and Psychology and a Master's degree in Nutrition Sciences. She is currently pursuing her Registered Dietitian certification at Montclair State University. You can follow her on Instagram but we encourage you to check out her website, which offers healthy tips, recipes, nutrition services and much more. She also was kind enough to set up a "Hiker's Corner" for us on Amazon, which includes healthy snack options for our passionate hikers. 

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