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June, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 06

Walking or Hiking Your Way to Better Health

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT

I was planning on beginning this column with, "Now that winter is ending, we can turn our attention to outdoor activities." However, considering the unusually mild winter most of the country experienced, it seems like there was not much difference between the weather last October and the weather in February.

One of my friends in the midwest called this the "winter that wasn't" and I have to agree with her. But it does put a damper on the theme of this article, which was to suggest getting outside and walking now that the weather permits it. Rather, what might be more appropriate this year would be to say that if one has not already taken advantage of the mild temperatures, now is a great time to start, perhaps with some walking or hiking.

In my experience, people have been very opinionated when it comes to walking or hiking; either people enjoy these activities and believe they are a great form of exercise, or people roll their eyes and believe it is a complete waste of time. I've noticed that most of the folks in the latter category seem to be runners. They seem to get personally offended by the idea that walking could replace jogging as a form of exercise. After all, as practitioners we well know that the knees cannot "run" forever, regardless of how much one's spirit wants to. Personally, I have viewed walking and hiking as a good form of exercise for my older clients, and clients with injuries that prevent high-impact sports. However, now that I have researched the topics, I find myself reconsidering walking and hiking as exercises reserved solely for my older clients. While walking is one of the most natural activities we do - being able to walk upright is one of the defining characteristics of our species - when done creatively and intentionally, it provides an excellent workout for all who do it, whether one is 22 or 75. Considering the general state of health in the U.S., it is becoming critical that we take walking seriously.

Walking or Hiking - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark For instance, in 2007 the American Heart Association (AHA) revised its original recommendations on exercise in order to maintain a healthy heart. It concluded that the minimum amount of exercise needed to stay healthy was 150 minutes per week. Unfortunately, the AHA goes on to say that only 15 percent of American adults actually achieve 150 minutes per week, which is not encouraging for us as a nation. In several places, this report specifically suggests walking as a way to meet these guidelines. In January, the AHA also implemented a national Walking Clubs initiative, in which anyone can start or join a walking club in their area to help them get more exercise. Notice that the American Heart Association did not begin a running club, or biking club, or a soccer club - it chose walking as an acceptable and accessible form of exercise to keep your heart healthy.

In "The Complete Guide to Walking," Mark Fenton mentions some basics to keep in mind when beginning a walking program:

  1. When you set out on your walk, make sure you stay on sidewalks and trails as much as possible. If you must walk in the street, walk towards oncoming traffic; you must be able to see the cars coming at you, in case the drivers are not paying attention.
  2. If you are walking at dawn, dusk, or at night, make sure you wear clothing with reflective material on both sides of your body.
  3. In the beginning, focus on the amount of time walked, not distance covered. Set a goal of a 10, 20 or 30 minute walk. Weather conditions and personal health status can affect how long it takes to cover a certain distance, so tracking how long one walks instead of how far is much more satisfying.

The best thing about walking is that it is so easy to start. Experts agree that the only "necessary" item to begin a walking program is a good pair of shoes. This means that they should be new, or relatively new: any athletic shoe that has been regularly used for six months or more is no longer considered optimum for exercising. A designated walking shoe or a light hiking shoe is best, and the next best would be a running shoe. The important characteristics of the shoe include one that bends easily at the ball of the foot, is firm through the arch area, and has a low heel.

Speaking of hiking shoes, let's briefly discuss hiking for those of you who are more adventurous, live near ideal hiking environments, or want more of a cardiovascular challenge. Again, proper footwear ranks as one of the most important items for anyone who wants to hike. According to recommendations in "The Complete Hiker," this means shoes and socks. Socks should be thick and preferably a blend of synthetic and natural fibers. While the old standard was to wear two pairs of socks, sport-specific socks are now readily available, making one pair of socks sufficient. The socks should not have loose strands, or bunch up anywhere, both of which could cause blisters. Once you have your socks, wear them to try on boots (thick socks can impact your shoe size). When picking out boots, remember that feet swell when hiking, so one should not feel any compression in the toe area when trying them on. The heel should also fit snug enough to prevent your toes from hitting the front of the boot on a descent.

In addition to footwear, proper attire is also very important when hiking. The key here is layering: since weather can change dramatically throughout the day, or even over the course of a couple of hours, one needs to be prepared for a significant temperature change. A base layer that consists of wicking material is the most important, and if you have other layers that wick as well, that is even better. Make sure your clothing can be easily removed when you get hot, and can be put on easily when you get cold. It should also be able to fit in whatever type of pack you are carrying.

Regardless of whether you prefer walking or hiking, the point is that both options are great forms of exercise that our bodies are naturally designed to do. Just like cheetahs are designed to run and sharks are designed to swim, our bodies are designed to stand upright and walk. Molly Allard, an ACE certified personal trainer based in Davenport, Iowa, agrees: "I think walking is one of the best forms of exercise. It is a total body work out that can be done by just about anyone, anywhere, since it is gentle on your joints. Walking is a great choice for beginning exercisers, but can also be challenging to more experienced athletes when adding hills, varying walking speed, and swinging the arms more. Hiking is a great cardiovascular workout that also provides lower body toning. It is definitely more challenging that walking. Due to the fact that hiking usually involves inclines, descents and uneven surfaces, the chance for injury is higher than walking. Therefore, I would recommend it for people who are at intermediate or advanced fitness levels. Some people prefer the mind-body connection that hiking in nature provides, while others enjoy walking around the city. Either way, walking and hiking are excellent ways to start exercising, or to add something different to your normal routine."

So, put on some shoes and get going!

Click here for more information about Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT.


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