Since June is National Great Outdoors Month, there’s no better time to get outside in the gorgeous weather and get some exercise. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found seniors who walk at least four hours a week reduce their risk of being hospitalized due to cardiovascular problems. And that’s just one perk.
There are many other health benefits: increased endurance, improved balance, a lower risk of heart disease, better blood pressure; you’ll even sleep better at night, have more energy during the day and improve your mood. So what are you waiting for? Why not hike the trails, paths and parks in your area?
Before you think that hiking may be too strenuous or too complicated take heart. Hiking is really just walking outdoors in nature. If you can walk, you can hike. It’s actually one of the best forms of fitness seniors can engage in. It takes little equipment besides a pair of sturdy shoes and a wooden walking stick, if you feel inspired, and it can be done in short or long increments. So, just what do you need to know to get going?
Here are seven quick and easy hiking tips to get you going:
1. Hike safely.
Before you go out on your first trail, make sure your doctor has cleared you to exercise. To beat the heat, stick to mornings or late afternoons. Always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Better still, bring a friend to hike with you. Tote along at least 2 liters of water and a high-energy snack like a baggie filled with almonds or a protein bar. A safety whistle and a cellphone (though be aware some areas may not have reception) are must-haves. Toss in a light jacket if you think the elevation or temperature may change while hiking. It’s also a great idea to stock a first-aid kit, an extra pair of thick socks and a trail map that includes topographical features. A small, lightweight backpack makes the perfect hands-free carryall.
2. Dress appropriately.
No fancy hiking clothes are required, but skip jeans, as they retain moisture, as will anything cotton. Opt for moisture-wicking synthetic workout wear like athletic or yoga pants and shirts. Dress in layers that can be stripped off. Sturdy tennis shoes will work if the trail isn’t craggy; otherwise, a nice, rubber-soled hiking boot is best. Look for a clearly defined heel with a knobby tread. Always check the weather forecast before hiking.
3. Stretch before hitting the trail.
Do a few warm-up stretches before you get going on the trail just to loosen and rev up cold muscles. It needn’t be anything fancy, just five minutes of gentle toe touches, side-to-side waist stretches and over-the-head arm extensions.
4. Hike at your own pace.
Hiking isn’t a race or concerned with speed. Find a hiking rhythm and cadence that works for you. Start out walking at a normal pace, and check your breathing after five minutes. If you’re breathing normally, you can increase your pace a bit; if you’re breathing heavily, slow down. Opt for a pace that slightly raises your breathing but doesn’t cause a sweat. Remember to take in the scenery, stop for breaks and drink plenty of water.
5. Try a walking stick or hiking poles.
If you want to try a walking stick or hiking poles, they can help with balance, be useful in rocky terrain and offer assistance in uphill hiking. Hold your stick or poles so that your elbows are at a comfortable 90 degree angle. Experiment with your movement pattern: Stick or pole forward with opposite leg or stick or pole forward with same side leg. Either way, push off the ground for leverage with each step. A walking stick or hiking poles can make your hike fun and enjoyable but aren’t necessary.
6. Keep an eye on the clock.
Plan on hiking only 30 minutes to an hour to start. Don’t be overly ambitious about how much time it takes to traverse an average trail. Beginners may cover about 2 miles an hour or less on flat, easy trails, and not as much on a moderate trail with some elevation changes. If you’re hiking toward a site like a lake or waterfall, keep an eye on how much time that will realistically take. Plus, you’ll want to be off the trail by sunset since the likelihood of a fall in the dark is higher.
7. Try a travel or hiking club.
Once you come to love hiking, you may want to join a travel or hiking club where members have meet-ups or travel to area hiking destinations as a group. Hiking as a member of a group is a great way to learn more about the sport, meet likeminded seniors and discover notable hiking trails. Some offer year-round hikes and promote conservation and wildlife activism.