Did you know the actual physical, mental, spiritual and emotional benefits of hiking for the over 55s? Some of those mentioned below might surprise you but others you will be more familiar with.
The Physical Benefits
The physical benefits of hiking are the most obvious. Hiking gives you a great cardio work which helps in reducing the risk of heart disease. It improves your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and your balance. It also helps strengthen your glutes, quads and other large muscles in your body because these are the ones you use moving your legs up mountain paths. You not only feel stronger you are stronger. It is the weight bearing nature of physical side of hiking that helps improve your bone density an important issue for many older people.
The Mental Benefits
But did you know hiking actually assists cognitively as well by helping stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease through reducing or delaying mental decline. Here’s how it works. When you are hiking your walking up uneven surfaces. With each step you take your mind is constantly processing and making dozens of decisions most of which you are not even aware of. “Do I step here or there?” “Where and when do I shift my weight making sure I keep pressing through my heals?” “Will my walking pole take my weight going down that incline?” “I need to watch out for that slippery rock or tree root.” All this while still taking in the beauty all around you. Your mind is engaged all the time doing mental calculations to keep you safe and upright. It is this mental engagement that is so important when beating Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
The Spiritual and Emotional Benefits
The spiritual and emotional benefits of hiking are harder to articulate and for each of us they can be very different. Physically there is a release of endorphins that occurs after a strenuous workout. These account for that amazing feeling you experience when you complete a hike. However, for many there are also other feelings that comes with hiking. The feeling of being more connected not just to your surroundings but to yourself. Coming to a knowing of where and how you fit into the overall scheme of things. For some these other reactions happens more on longer treks or on particular parts of a trails. For others they are with them constantly.
I listened to a hiker once who was speaking about hiking in the Hindu Kush. He had lost his brother tragically in a car accident. For some reason he could not really explain he’d decided to go hiking in India. Originally it was to be for a couple of weeks. When he completed his wanderings, he had been walking solidly for 4 months. He said that in that time he had come to a peace and an acceptance of this brother’s death. He was healing. He attributed this to the meditative nature that hiking can sometimes take on and further went on to explain this by saying that when you reach a speed of 4km per hour your mind goes into a meditative state. It is clear of the clutter of everyday thoughts that usually take up space in your head. To me that makes sense. I also had a friend who did the Camino in Spain, a six-week pilgrimage that helped her begin to heal after the loss of her brother. Take from it what you will but anecdotal evidence shows that hiking and being in nature has the power to heal and strengthen on many levels.
Generally, as we age, we lose more people close to us. It’s the nature of life and things. The cycle of life, death and renewal. Hiking and observing nature help us come to terms with not only loss but also with aging and our own mortality.
Hiking for all ages
So, the benefits of hiking are many and varied but probably the best thing about hiking, trekking, tramping, or simply walking in nature is that it can be as epic or as everyday as you make it. It can be as basic or hi-tech as you want it to be. The only things you really need are working legs, a pair of walking shoes and the will to do it. Shank’s pony is still the cheapest form of transport and using them is still the cheapest exercise you can do. You can also incorporate other interests into hiking if you like, bird watching, rock climbing, geology, fossicking, astronomy or even singing just to name a few. However, you want to look at it and do it is up to you. Whether you want to just get fitter or to heal after a personal tragedy exercising and being in nature will serve you well.