Perhaps the name is no longer technically accurate, at least as far as most of its members are concerned.
But calling the Meetup group “Overweight Travelers for Health” is still an effective way to telegraph to newcomers exactly what it’s all about: sociable outdoor tourism, with a laid-back focus that’s more about having fun than just madly ticking off miles. dear.
Also, this name and the group it describes really grew out of Richard Koumelis’ experience in weightlifting, who founded OHH in July 2013.
Koumelis had retired from the US Air Force about five years early after 25 years of service and was experiencing, as he now admits, “terrible depression.”
“I was very successful in the Air Force,” he says. “The world outside the military was difficult for me.”
He ended up gaining over 100 pounds. “The doctor told me I’d be dead in a year,” he says.
Koumelis began looking for a way to incorporate more physical activity into her life. He had always enjoyed walking, but was uncomfortable going out on his own, afraid of what would happen if he suffered a medical illness or an accident on the trail. He also feared the inconvenience of slowing down physically fit hikers in other tour groups because he was out of shape.
“If I went 100 yards, I was gasping for air,” Koumelis says.
“It just grew and grew”
His therapist suggested that Koumelis start a group for hikers like himself — intermediate, perhaps out-of-shape newcomers who might enjoy hiking but wouldn’t feel comfortable joining more advanced hiking groups. He believes that group members can support each other and maybe even motivate each other to start on the path to a more active lifestyle.
Four people showed up in August 2013 for the first hike of what Koumelis called “Overweight Travelers for Health.” “Then it just grew and grew and became its own thing,” he says.
OHH now has nearly 5,000 people registered on Meetup and about 300 active members, Koumelis says. The group conducts leader-led hikes — usually two to four each week — at local hiking hotspots, including Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston and Lake Mead. He also organizes hiking and camping trips outside of Las Vegas at destinations that include Zion National Park in Utah, as well as occasional camping trips.
Hikes range from relatively easy walks of a mile or two to more challenging hikes. And while some members join to lose weight, others simply appreciate the group’s welcoming atmosphere and easy pace of hikes.
The goal isn’t to force diet and health on people, Koumelis says, but to accommodate members wherever they are on their fitness journey.
That “overweight” descriptor in the name is “intended not to be embarrassing,” Koumelis says. Most members aren’t even necessarily overweight, he adds, and include, for example, people recovering from injuries or surgeries.
A shared love of nature
If there’s a common denominator, it’s that members enjoy spending time outdoors with outgoing people. Koumelis believes that at least three marriages took place in the group and many friendships were formed.
Vern Quever joined about four years ago and served as a hike guide for just over two years. He was drawn to it in part by the band’s camping trips.
“I’ve done a few camping trips, but not as many as I’d like,” he says.
Kuever has also been a hike leader for other organizations and has noticed that OHH hikes tend to attract a more physically diverse crowd.
“Sometimes we’ll have slower people, which can be a bit difficult,” he says. “I’ll wait. Sometimes slower people feel bad about waiting. I’ll tell them I enjoy waiting.
“It’s so welcoming”
Elsa Olsen has loved hiking ever since she went on organized hikes while attending college in California. But after school, during marriage and while raising her children, hiking became “a part of my life that was missing.”
After her divorce in 2017, Olson looked for an online leader-assisted hiking group—“I didn’t want to get lost in the woods,” she says—and found OHH.
Her children are then 15 and 18 years old. “I reached out and asked Richard if my son and daughter could come and he said, ‘Sure, as long as they can handle it,'” she says.
“It’s so welcoming to have different levels of hiking ability,” Olson says. “The hike leaders have radios and monitor each hike, keeping an eye out for slower walkers.”
Olson also credits OHH with helping her children develop a love of nature. They’re now in their 20s, she says, and hiking with the group “helped them discover that you can hike year-round in the valley.”
Koumelis says OHH really serves as a way to introduce newcomers to hiking and the outdoors. It can also serve as an introduction to a healthy activity.
Overcoming the intimidation factor
Dr. Gaurav Zirath, a family medicine physician at Southwest Medical, says that hiking can be a way to contribute to the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity recommended for adults each week.
In addition to the physical benefits that walking would provide, research shows that physical activity “reduces the risk of anxiety and depression and improves mental health, and that walking is a great way to achieve that,” he says.
Traveling with a group can also offer motivation to start and continue an activity, Zirat says. It can also help reduce the fear some people feel when starting a physical activity program.
“Once you break down that intimidation barrier, people tend to do better and have a better chance (of maintaining it) for a longer period of time,” Zirat says. “And the social interaction certainly helps.”
Even if the name Hikers for Health Overweight isn’t entirely accurate, Olson thinks it works well.
“I think the name makes us less intimidating to people who join,” she says. “If you’ve never done it before and people are eager to do it the first time … saying ‘overweight’ makes it less threatening.”