August 2009

Walk Your Way To Perfect Health

Although gyms feature high-tech equipment, televisions and even tanning, sometimes exercise is best done the old-fashioned way. Hiking is an excellent way to work all your muscles and reduce stress, and you can change the scenery whenever you want!

The American Heart Association recommends outdoor walking for 30 to 60 minutes three to four times a week. The American Hiking Society promises, “Your body will feel better, your head will feel clearer and your stress level will have decreased. You’ll want to hike again.” If you’re just starting, begin with 20-minute walks, which will get your heart pumping and burn calories. Work your way up to one-hour walks in order to build stamina, and finally, tackle some hills.

The Nomad Hiking Journal recommends hiking a trail with elevation changes. “Generally, a trail that goes up at a slight incline for a long time is better than one that goes [straight] up. Time is a key factor, so try to find a trail that isn’t going to wipe you out in the first 200 feet.”

If you find hiking a struggle, consider taking along a friend or dog to help keep you going. Take short breaks (10 minutes at least once every hour) along the way to enjoy the scenery or bird watch. Although you may want to pocket your cell phone for emergencies, consider turning it off so that your hike won’t be interrupted, and you can truly get away from it all. To keep your energy up, have some trail mix and stay hydrated. The National Parks Service recommends drinking one-half to one quart of water or sports drink for every hiking hour, especially in hotter climates. As the pros say, eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty!

According to Health Line, hiking uphill is a concentric (muscle-shortening) exercise while downhill is an eccentric (muscle-lengthening) exercise. Both movements work different parts of the body and have positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Hiking helps increase levels of HDL, the good type of cholesterol that protects your heart. Although you should wear sunscreen on bright days, you’ll still get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sunshine.

Surprisingly, hiking is a great method of exercise for many people with arthritis since the constant leg movement helps strengthen the leg muscles and take pressure off the knee joints. When going downhill, grab branches or use a walking stick to help take further pressure off the knees. Good hiking shoes are a necessity as well. Your Total Health writes, “Hiking shoes or boots should be comfortable, sturdy, waterproof and most importantly, broken in before you take them on the trail.”

If you’re tackling some intense trails, be sure to bring a first-aid kit, flashlight and batteries in case of an emergency. Maps or GPS systems are a must, but also consider a hiking guide to get the most out of your hike. Not only will professionals help show beginners how to properly scale even the biggest mountains, but also they are often experts in the surrounding horticulture and wildlife as well.

Check out your town or state’s local hiking club, and you’ll probably find an enthusiastic group of both veterans and beginners. State parks offer beautiful and often historic trails with a small admission fee (if any). For information on group hikes, trail preservation and the best in hiking gear, visit the American Hiking Society at www.americanhiking.org. Hiking is an activity that can be done year-round, and it’s practically free – so strap on your boots and hit the trail!