Exercise is vital for any older adult, and it’s doubly important if you’re preparing to hike. Many medical studies have demonstrated that physical activity helps protect against multiple physical and mental problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, dementia, and many others.
Studies have also made it clear that different people need very different exercise programs. Anyone, old or young, will benefit from regular exercise, but there’s no universal program that’s right for everyone.
While each of us has to find our own ideal type and frequency of exercise, there are a few general rules. One is that while exercise needs to be consistent, it doesn’t need to be constant.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours a week of physical exercise. That works out to only 30 minutes a day on weekdays. More is better, of course, but you don’t have to turn your life into a workout to get significant physical gains!
Another important rule is that we need to balance different forms of exercise. The AAFP report cited above advises dividing exercise time up among four basic categories: building balance, flexibility, endurance, and strength. Each of those elements reinforces the others, and all are important both for hiking and for life in general. A complete physical fitness program has to work on all four.
Improving Your Balance
Balance is important for all older people. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among older Americans, and the fear of falls keeps many older people away from healthy, productive activity. Balance and strength are the keys to fall prevention.
If you’re hiking, balance takes on even greater importance. Many hikes involve rough surfaces and remote areas where a fall can be a major problem. That doesn’t have to keep us from hiking: regular exercise focused on developing balance can keep us ready to tackle any trail with confidence!
Balance exercises come in many shapes and forms. The simplest involve simply standing on one foot, or walking in a straight line placing the heel of one foot in front of the toe of the other.
Or stand straight with feet shoulder-width apart, shift all your weight to one foot for 10 seconds, then shift to the other foot for ten seconds. Or see this list for more simple balance exercises. If you prefer a video demonstration, here’s a good video review of introductory balance exercises.
If you already have an active exercise program, these exercises will probably seem too easy. If that’s the case, you’re already well on your way. Look to this list of somewhat more demanding exercises, or ask your trainer about balance exercises that are appropriate to your fitness level.
If you want to continue developing balance, consider taking up yoga, tai chi, or almost any form of dance. All of these are enjoyable pastimes that provide an extensive repertoire of balance exercises.
One of the best ways to develop balance is to keep hiking! Walking outdoors combines strength and balance exercise in an extended and enjoyable workout. Just remember to extend your limits slowly.
The American Heart Association recommends balance exercise at least 3 times a week for older adults. The American Academy of Family Physicians states that balance exercises can be done every day, if desired.
Improving Your Flexibility
Ageing takes a real toll on flexibility. Muscles become shorter and lose some of their elasticity. Joints stiffen and their range of motion decreases. Fortunately, we can slow and even reverse these natural processes to stretch muscles and promote joint flexibility.
Stretching exercises have a huge range of benefits. They can help alleviate lower back pain and arthritis pain, reduce the risk of falling, improve posture, promote freedom of movement, and increase energy levels.
Stretching can also cause problems for muscles and joints if you overdo it. If you’re new to stretching exercises, you’ll want to start slow and build up as you go along. If a stretch is painful or uncomfortable, stop. Flexibility doesn’t come overnight. It’s something we build slowly.
Remember a few points before stretching:
- Take a deep breath before starting a stretch and gently exhale as you stretch the muscle.
- Keep breathing normally as you hold a stretch. Don’t hold your breath.
- Hold a stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, relax, and repeat two to four times.
- Avoid “bouncing” or “ballistic stretching”. “Bouncing” occurs when you stretch as far as you can, back off slightly, and try to stretch farther again, sometimes over and over again. This type of stretch is associated with higher injury risk. Easing into a stretched position and holding it steadily is more effective and reduces injury risk.
- Move slowly and deliberately. Avoid snapping into a stretch or moving rapidly from one stretch to another.
- Try to warm up before stretching. Try walking while swinging your arms to limber up and get ready to stretch.
- Don’t push too hard. Stop if it hurts.
Experts recommend devoting at least three 30-minute sessions each week to stretching. Those sessions don’t have to be the only time you stretch. A few simple stretches after getting out of bed can be a great start to the day and a short stretching section after aerobic exercise or strength training can help you stay limber.
There are thousands of stretching exercises, ranging from very simple to extraordinarily complex. If you’re looking for a simple start at home there are several good online lists of simple stretching exercises selected for older adults, including this list and this review. Both of these include stretches for almost every part of the body, and you may wish to start with only selected exercises and expand from there.
If you prefer to see exercises demonstrated, try this review of introductory stretching exercises.
If you’re already active, these exercises may seem too simple. If you’ve already started exercising for flexibility and you want to up your game, try talking to a qualified trainer who can review your current program and suggest ways to expand it without excessive risk of injury. A yoga class can also be a great way to move into more advanced flexibility training.
Flexibility may not seem as important as strength or endurance, but it’s something you use every day, and every time you’re on a trail. Loose muscles, limber joints, and good posture make it easier to use that strength and endurance and reduce the chances of injury. It’s an essential part of developing physical fitness!
Improving Your Endurance
Aerobic exercise brings a host of benefits to anyone at any age, and the older we get, the more we need it. The Mayo Clinic lists ten key benefits of aerobic exercise:
Control your weight – Regular aerobic exercise combined with a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Build strength and stamina – Aerobic exercise can be tiring at first. Once it becomes a habit you’ll see the gains: more strength and more endurance, on a hiking trail or anywhere else!
Boost your immune system – Regular aerobic exercise can keep your immune system active and help you fight off common illnesses.
Lower your health risks – Aerobic exercise helps prevent many serious health problems, including hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and even some types of cancer.
Improve ongoing health problems – Aerobic exercise could help you lower your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, improve your quality of life and mobility, and help you manage conditions like arthritis.
Make your heart and lungs stronger – Cardiovascular functions are at the core of everything you do with your body, and the muscles that drive those functions can be strengthened with regular exercise.
Clear your arteries – Aerobic exercise lifts good cholesterol levels and lowers bad cholesterol levels, which could mean less plaque buildup in your arteries.
Lift your mood – Aerobic exercise promotes a feeling of well-being and relieves depression and anxiety.
Keeps you active and independent – Aerobic exercise builds both physical and cognitive functions, increasing mobility and lowering the risk of falls.
Have a longer life – People who get regular aerobic exercise live longer than those who don’t.
That’s a pretty compelling list, and the benefits are not hard to achieve. Cardio exercise comes in many forms. Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, rowing, dancing, or working out on a treadmill or stair climber at a gym can all get you a good dose of cardio exercise. Hiking also qualifies, and one of the best ways to prepare for hiking is to hike!
There are four steps to building your cardio workout program:
1. Choose an activity, or a combination of activities – Look for something you enjoy, something that’s easily accessible, and something that meets your needs. If you have joint pain, for example, you might look for a low-impact exercise like cycling or swimming.
2. Decide how long you want to exercise – The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20-30 minute exercise periods, but if you’re not ready for that, don’t worry. Start smaller and work up to where you want to be!
3. Choose an intensity – Ideally you’ll work out at a moderate to vigorous level, bringing your heart rate to about 65% to 85% of your maximum heart rate. (You can learn to estimate your maximum heart rate). If you’re exercising hard enough that it’s hard to talk, you’re at the “vigorous” level! If that feels like too much, just settle for lower intensity but exercise more frequently.
4. Choose a frequency – 20 to 30 minutes 3 times a week is great, but if that’s not convenient, don’t worry. Use the intervals you can, do as much exercise as you’re comfortable doing, and you’ll be on your way!
Whatever your choice of exercise, start slowly, especially if you’re new to cardio exercise or if you’ve been away from it for a while. Even a few minutes of walking at a time is a start. Add time and frequency gradually as your comfort level grows! If you haven’t been active for a while or if you have any chronic health problems, talk to your doctor before starting.
Improving Your Strength
Strength training is the final leg of a balanced physical fitness program, and it’s one of the most important things you can do for your body. A well-planned strength training program can slow and reverse muscle loss and control the weakness that often comes with age. Strength training builds bone and muscle, strengthens the core muscles that stabilize the body, and helps to control many of the physical problems that aging so often brings.
We often associate strength training with weight lifting, and many strength training programs do include weights. Don’t let that intimidate you. There’s no need to lift enormous weights or compete with bodybuilders. Strength training programs can be developed for individuals of any fitness level and can be safe for people of any age and condition.
You can choose to train in a gym or at home, with exercises that use bodyweight, with resistance bands (think of very large rubber bands), with lighter weights, or with heavier weights as you gain strength and seek new challenges. Any of these alone or any combination of these can deliver all of the benefits of strength training!
If you’re just beginning your strength training program you may wish to consult a qualified trainer who has experience working with older adults. There are thousands of exercises available and even a little bit of research can deliver an overwhelming mass of information.
A qualified trainer can help you select a package of exercises that works your entire body and is appropriate for your condition. Even if you plan to exercise at home, a trainer can help you select your exercises, show you how to do them safely, and brief you on possible danger signs to watch out for.
If you’re considering a strength training program, you may wish to start with this comprehensive introduction to strength training for older adults, produced by the Center for Disease Control.
For most older adults two to three sessions a week is a great introduction to strength training. You may wish to add frequency, length, and intensity to your sessions as you progress. Many people find strength training addictive!
Be sure to warm up well before each session, pay attention to form on every exercise, and check in regularly with a trainer if you have questions. If an exercise is painful, lower the intensity or discontinue it until you can get advice.
When Your Body Is Ready
A healthy diet and a balanced exercise program designed to develop strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance are a great way to get ready for any physical challenge. That combination will leave you ready for more and longer hikes, and it will also leave you fit and ready for any other physical activity you want to take on.
If you’ve been working on shorter hikes as you build your fitness, you’ll soon be looking at the possibility of walking farther and seeing more!