Dust off your hiking boots! Now's a great time to join the millions of others who experience wildlife, celebrate nature and shed extra pounds—at the same time!
With the growing number of nature paths sprouting up around the country, lots of people have turned to hiking for workouts that are as effective as they are enjoyable. In fact, it's estimated that more than 75 million Americans went hiking last year.
And who can blame them? Much like fitness walking, hiking burns calories, helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure, increases energy and reduces the risk of heart disease…without putting much stress on the body.
"I live near a trail along the Potomac River, and I hike it at least once a week," shares Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society. "Not only has hiking strengthened my cardiovascular system, but it helped me lose weight and keep it off.
"Walking the mall or taking brisk strolls around the block are fantastic forms of exercise, too," points out the Arlington, Virginia resident. "But hiking offers unique opportunities, such as seeing wildlife or beautiful foliage, that you won't find in a shopping center.
"Plus, hiking presents physical challenges such as trekking varied terrain, stooping under low-hanging branches and jumping over puddles.
"Hiking has terrific emotional benefits, too," continues Mary Margaret. "In today's hectic world, I depend on nature trails to provide quiet places for me to slow down and think about the things that are important to me.
"Sometimes I hike with a friend so we can talk without interruptions. Other times, I hike to listen to the birds or visit a stream," she says. "I usually enjoy my time on the trail so much I forget what a thorough workout I'm getting."
Taking the Beaten Path
There are two types of hikes: day and extended. Day hikes usually involve paths and don't require much equipment or know-how. Extended or overnight hikes require more equipment and experience and don't necessarily follow marked trails.
"If you're just getting started, consider day hiking," recommends Mary Margaret. "But as with any fitness activity, remember to consult your doctor first before beginning."
Once you get your doctor's approval, meet with a park ranger or contact a local hiking club to find out which nearby trails are best for you. (See the American Hiking Society's Web site and how you can find a hiking club near you.)
"It's always a good idea to stretch before and after a hike," Mary Margaret reminds. "Warm up by hiking slowly, and gradually increase your speed.
"Keep your first few hikes short, and build up to hiking longer distances as you become stronger."
Eventually extend your hikes to include greater physical challenges such as hiking up hills. If you stray from the trail, make mental notes of unique landmarks to avoid getting lost. "I bring a compass with me regardless of the distance I'm hiking," notes Mary Margaret.
"Personally, I find just the pure act of hiking to be pleasurable," she adds. "Try it. As long as you stay within your capabilities, you'll return from each hike feeling better than when you left."