Some 2,400 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates said: “That which is used, develops. That which is not used wastes away.” Today, that bit of ancient wisdom is often reflected in a more succinct phrase: “Use it or lose it.” Whichever way one says it, the concept has never lost its validity. In fact, it has become especially relevant to the subject of walking as a means of helping seniors preserve their mobility and overall state of health.
Virtually all medical authorities agree that walking is a vitally important form of exercise for older adults (including those who use a cane or walker for assistance), not only to maintain mobility, but also for potential benefits pertaining to blood circulation and heart health, joint diseases, bone density, breathing, balance and mental acuity. The Arthritis Foundation, for example, provides a comprehensive discussion of walking’s benefits here.
To realize all the advantages that walking can bring, however, it is necessary for a senior to consider the factors that will make his or her journeys on foot safe, comfortable and enjoyable. For starters, it is imperative to consult with your doctor before undertaking a substantial walking program. He or she will advise you if any aspect of your medical status warrants restrictions on the scope of your walking activity in terms of pace, distance, terrain and weather conditions. Having your doctor’s assessment in advance will – no pun intended – get you off on the right foot.
Here are tips to consider for general safety and comfort:
- Warm up and cool down. Regardless of how fast you intend to walk, begin each walk at a casual pace to get the blood flowing to your muscles and joints. End the walk by gradually slowing your pace over a period of a few minutes.
- Think carefully about intended routes. Plan ahead. Try to minimize encounters with broken pavements, construction hazards, congested sidewalks and heavily trafficked intersections. You may also wish to avoid steep inclines.
- Dress for success. In this case, that means wear loose fitting clothes that are appropriate for an extended walk. Bear in mind that you may feel comfortable at the start, but get warmer as the walk progresses. Consider dressing in layers, which is a tactic that also can be useful when weather conditions are variable.
- Choose appropriate footwear. Select walking shoes with good arch support and non-skid soles.
- Air quality counts. Be alert to weather advisories about poor air quality, especially if you have asthma or other breathing disorders. Postponing or shortening walks on days with high air pollution may be the most sensible course to take.
- Don’t forget water. Staying hydrated is always important, but all the more so in hot weather, regardless of the humidity level. Bring water along on extended walks. This may present a complication for seniors with such common conditions as an enlarged prostate or over-active bladder, so consider choosing walking routes that include accessible restrooms, such as the public library or a favorite diner or gas station.
- Check out those canes and walkers. Don’t let the need for a walking aid prevent you from hitting the trail (providing that your doctor agrees, of course). Just choose an appropriate distance and go at a comfortable pace. However, do make sure the cane or walker is the right height for you to ensure maximum safety and comfort. In addition, you might want to consider a walker that includes a seat so you can rest along the way.
- Stay focused. Some seniors prefer to chat with companions while walking or to listen to music. While that can make walking more enjoyable, don’t allow it to distract you from potential hazards, such as a pothole, patch of ice or uneven terrain. Be especially alert when stepping off a curb, where a misstep can result in a sprained or broken ankle. Always be focused on where you are walking.
- Stay connected. Take a cell phone with you, for safety’s sake. If cost is an issue, consider a basic service plan that may be available for as little as $10 a month.
- Forget the adage: no pain, no gain. The objective is healthy exercise, not a place on the Olympic team, so do not attempt to exceed sensible limits. If you encounter pain or serious discomfort, stop and rest. If it persists, notify your doctor.
Many seniors make their exercise a social occasion by joining walking clubs, which often are sponsored by community senior centers. If none is available or convenient for you, the American Heart Association encourages older adults to start their own, with advice on how to do it here.
Overall, walking is good for you at any age. Dr. Hippocrates, in fact, declared that, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Just be sure to keep safety in mind and apply good sense along the way.