Walking or hiking in a natural area may benefit your heart more than working out indoors.
For many people, summer’s long days and warm weather make it a great time to exercise outdoors. And that just might be a great way to boost the rewards from your workout, says Dr. Edward Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
“When you’re moving your body, your heart, lungs, and muscles don’t know or care where you are. But your mind does,” says Dr. Phillips. And if you’re exercising outdoors in a beautiful natural setting, you might be tempted to go a little farther than if you set out to walk for just 30 minutes around your neighborhood, he notes. “Some people say it’s hard to rack up 7,000 steps a day walking a familiar route. But they often find they can go twice as far on a hike, especially if there’s a nice vista at the destination,” he says. If you choose a trail that includes some hills, which will force your heart to work harder, that will also increase your fitness.
Finding trails near you
Looking for hiking venues? Local, state, and national parks are a good place to start. A national, nonprofit organization called American Trails supports local, regional, and long-distance trails for hiking and other uses. See www.americantrails.org and check the “Trails” tab to search by state to find hikes in your area.
Walking pole perks?
Of course, you should be careful not to overdo it, especially if you have any conditions that affect your stamina or mobility, such as arthritis (also see “High-altitude hiking”). Using walking poles may help; they propel your body forward as you stride and provide extra stability when walking on uneven terrain. And unlike standard canes, walking poles don’t have an image problem, so they’re also handy for regular walks. “I have a patient who won’t use a cane because he doesn’t want to look disabled. But he willingly uses walking poles, and now he can keep up with his wife on walks,” says Dr. Phillips.
Using poles adds an upper-body workout to your walk that tones your arms, shoulders, and back. This increases the number of calories you burn, without making you feel like you’re working harder. Several studies have shown increases of 20% to 25% in cardiovascular workload and calorie burn. Yet people using poles tend to report ratings of perceived exertion that are similar to walking without poles.
If your summer travel plans include spending time in the mountains, you may wonder if and how the elevation may affect your heart. The higher you go in altitude, the less oxygen you take in with each breath. Your body responds by raising your heart rate and the amount of blood pumped with each beat. This temporarily boosts blood pressure, although your body adapts to the lower oxygen level within a few days.
For generally healthy people, as well as those with high blood pressure or other risks for heart disease, here’s a rule of thumb: Go no higher than 8,000 feet in the first leg of the trip and stay there for at least one night. Take it easy for a day or two before any strenuous hiking and pay attention to how you feel. If you’re feeling fine, then you should be okay to go a couple of thousand feet higher each day. But people with known heart or lung disease should check with their physician for more specific advice before traveling to a high-altitude destination.
As far as hiking’s other advantages go, consider this: Natural settings tend to be quieter, cooler, and have better air quality than urban areas. And a number of small studies hint that spending time in green space — nature preserves, woodlands, and even urban parks — may ease people’s stress levels. Considering that stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease risk, anything you can do to counteract stress is likely to be helpful, says Dr. Phillips.
Here are some tips for a safe and enjoyable hiking experience:
Hike with a partner or a hiking group. Venturing out with companions is good for both camaraderie and safety. If you go alone, let someone know where you are headed and when you plan to return.
Protect your feet. Choose well-fitting footwear with good ankle support. Make sure to break them in with shorter walks so you don’t get blisters when you’re miles from a trailhead.
Bring water. Don’t forget to stay hydrated, especially in warm, sunny weather.
Image: © Yobro10/Getty Images
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