Hiking: The Scenic Route to Fitness

October 13, 2011

By Denise Lodge

Photo by Peter Stevens

Last month, “Golf for Fun and Fitness” focused on the health benefits of golf; among them were the benefits gained from walking the course. This month, we are shifting our focus from walking on the golf course, to trekking some of Canada’s beautiful 9.9 million square kilometres. Hiking is an excellent way to connect with others, relax, enjoy nature, and embrace your health.

If you have hiked before, perhaps you can relate to the pleasant relaxation, enjoyment of the outdoors, and overall sense of well-being that comes from hiking. However, if you have never been, perhaps you feel a bit wary. According to Tim Southam, Public Affairs Manager for Mountain Equipment Co-op, hiking is an ideal exercise, “because it allows you to scale the workout to the grade and length of a trail, as well as pace yourself over its length.”

Hike for Your Health

Hiking benefits your health more than walking on the treadmill. The variation of terrain engages multiple muscle groups, which enhances stability. Hiking strengthens both your core and your lower back, and improves both upper and lower body strength. By working the cardiovascular system, hiking helps to ensure that oxygen is more efficiently delivered to muscles, decreasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Hiking helps to lower blood pressure, and can also lower “bad” cholesterol, and increase “good” cholesterol, which helps move the bad from the artery walls. Moreover, hiking helps to retain bone density and slows the rate of calcium loss, which strengthens the bones and helps to reverse the negative effects of osteoporosis. For those with arthritic pain, the natural reaction can be to stop using your joints. However, lack of movement can exacerbate the problem, whereas strengthening your muscles can relieve joint pain.

According to the Green Exercise research team at the University of Essex, spending time in nature every day benefits mood, self-esteem and mental health. For Tim Southam, “the aesthetic pleasures of hiking run deep”; he affirms that “there’s nothing quite like the pleasure that comes from a mountain vista that you’ve “found” simply by following a well-worn trail. It’s like sharing a secret with those who came before you.” One study published by Environmental Science & Technology asserts that compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments is associated with greater feelings of revitalization, and decreased tension and depression.

Necessary Hiking Gear

Photo by Peter Stevens

Perhaps one of the greatest deterrent of hiking is the fear that it will entail a big investment in gear. However, because of hiking’s wide range of time and skill requirements, the list of required gear also ranges from what you probably already own, to advanced, useful items that will make your hike as safe, comfortable, and enjoyable as possible.

Clothing

Expert Tim Southam explains that “clothing should be based on layering principles, so that you can dress up or down depending on the temperature and conditions.” He advises wearing a moisture-wicking layer next to your skin, “fleece or merino wool over it, and have a shell or rain jacket at hand if the weather gets inclement.”

  • Socks made of a synthetic blend or wool should see you through all climates.
  • During wet weather, either a waterproof jacket made of breathable fabric or an inexpensive plastic poncho works well.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, even if it is not sunny out, because UVA rays persist year-round.

Hiking Shoes

There is a wide range of hiking shoes to choose from, and they are a wise investment. According to expert Tim Southam, “the most common injuries result from people wearing inadequate footwear: running shoes don’t cut it on a steep trail, or on one where exposed rocks and roots can result in a sprained ankle.”

  • Trail running shoes suit uneven terrain, because of their traction. Look for lightweight ones with lugged rubber soles, which will improve stability and absorb shocks.
  • Light trail shoes also have lugged rubber soles. These are best for brisk hiking.
  • Day hiking shoes have some ankle support, which suit hikers carrying less than 15 kilograms.
  • Hiking boots that are “stiffer, cut higher, with deeper lugs on the soles” are required for “steeper terrain with loose rock,” advises Tim Southam. Good treads will prevent slipping on wet rocks or trails. Water-resistant boots with ankle support are best.

Backpack

Depending on the length of the trail, backpacks can save your life. Before you head out, test your backpack to make sure will not be too heavy. Gudrun and Peter Seifert, authors of Hike for Your Life, recommend walking about 15 kilometres with a full backpack (15 to 25 pounds, or about seven to 11 kilograms). Performing this “Seifert test” will let you know whether “more training is needed, or whether boots or backpack pinch or rub.”

  • Tim Southam recommends selecting “a day pack with adjustable and padded shoulder straps, and a waist strap. Trampoline-style packs with a suspension system are ideal for longer hikes in difficult terrain, because they allow you to transfer the weight from your shoulders to your hips.”
  • Backpacks made from weather-resistant fabric, such as pack cloth, are more durable. Look for tightly stitched seams, with zig-zag or perpendicular stitching at stress points.

Trekking poles

Trekking poles can help to reduce stress on ankles, knees, and hips, and prevent falling in slippery conditions. Keep in mind that walking downhill puts more pressure on joints than walking uphill or straight across a flat plain.

  • To find the best pole-height on flat or uphill terrain, hold the handles, bend your elbows 90 degrees, and adjust the height until the tips of the poles touch the ground.
  • To find the best pole-height on downhill terrain, increase the height of your poles five to ten centimetres, so that you will be able to place them in front of you without hunching forward.

Food

Pack foods with high energy, such as nuts and granola bars. It is also a good idea to pack some extra protein bars, just in case.

Pausing to enjoy some lunch. Photo by Peter Stevens

 

Water

A good rule is to pack one litre of water for every hour you plan to spend on the trail, and hydrate every 15 to 20 minutes. For a short hike, carry your own water, but for longer hikes, the safest option is to boil water and let it cool before drinking it.

GPS

Global Positioning Systems can be downloaded on some cell phones as apps, tracking your location, speed, and elevation. Bring hiking maps, even if you have a GPS.

Emergency Gear

The following is a list of gear recommended for extended hiking trips.

  • Acetaminophen for fever and pain
  • Adhesive bandages and gauze pads
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Chemical ice pack
  • Compass
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Foil blanket, which protects against wind and rain, and reflects body heat back to the user
  • Ibuprofen for inflammation
  • Medical tape and gloves
  • Safety pins and scissors
  • Signal-mirror, to reflect sunlight towards air-assisted rescuer
  • Waterproof matches, to light a fire for safety reasons
  • Whistle

Coast-to-Coast Trails

“In Canada,” Tim Southam says, “we are lucky to have countless good hiking trails within a reasonably short drive of most major cities.”

Trans Canada Trail

The Trans Canada Trail (TCT) is the world’s longest network of trails. Currently, more than 16,500 kilometres of trail have been developed, and when completed, the TCT will be 22,000 kilometres long, connecting Canadians from coast to coast. The trail has been designed for hiking, cycling, skiing, horseback riding, canoeing, and snowmobiling.

National Hiking Trail

According to Hike Canada en Marche, the organization behind the National Hiking Trail (NHT), it will eventually link all of Canada’s provinces. The NHT was born out of a meeting of national outdoor societies held on April 29, 1971; its purpose is to connect “existing natural-surface pedestrian trail systems with parklands and wild places.” Currently, there are 3,800 kilometres of operable trail, and the aim is to extend that to 10,000 kilometres. Unlike the TCT, the NHT is designed for foot travel only.

Preventing Hiking Injuries

One study published by Harvard Health found that fractures are the most common type of injury among hikers rescued by search-and-rescue operations. Walking long distances can also cause tightness in the hips and legs, and the extra weight of a backpack can strain the muscles between the neck and shoulders. Proper footwear and trekking poles are recommended to minimize falls and aches, but gear is not the only safety consideration to make.

Stretching

Stretching increases your range of motion, releases tension, and encourages blood flow, which nourishes cells and flushes metabolic waste from muscles and joints.

  • Hip Flexor
    a)     Lay on the floor with your legs straight.
    b)     Pull one knee towards your chest, letting the straight leg relax.
    c)      Alternate legs.
  • Neck Stretches
    a)     Tuck your chin back and then down to your chest.
    b)     Keeping teeth together, look up to the sky.
    c)      Turn your head to the right without turning your body. Repeat, turning to the left.
    d)     Bring your right ear down towards your right shoulder. Repeat, bringing your left ear to your left shoulder.Hold each of these for 3 seconds, and then return to neutral, looking straight ahead.

The previous stretches have been adapted from exercise guide It’s Never Too Late to Be Fit by personal trainer, Susan Manning and founder of Impowerage Magazine, Dr. Carolyn Anderson. The guide also covers strength training, cardiovascular endurance, balance exercises, and other aspects of fitness that can help improve your hike.

Getting Started Hiking

When planning a hike, keep in mind that most hikers spend about 20 minutes hiking one kilometre. Before heading out, check the weather forecast to know what kind of gear you will want to pack for the best experience possible. If you are unfamiliar with the area in which you will be hiking, study a map before you leave to have a better understanding of your surroundings. A checklist of what food and gear to bring will help to make sure you do not leave anything behind. Tim Southam points out that “hiking or outdoor clubs exist in many Canadian towns and cities, and they offer a good support network for getting started, with scheduled hikes on popular trails.” Always be sure to let someone know where you are planning to hike and when you expect to be back in case you encounter unexpected difficulties.

Hiking is an excellent route to mental, emotional, and physical health, and can be adapted to your individual experience, skill level, and availability. It is one of the least daunting outdoor activities, because all you need to get started is a desire to get outdoors; a 20-minute walk around the neighbourhood can be a great start to your hiking adventures.

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