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Photo by Donna Hahn.

Hike for a Lifetime

How hiking can improve your quality of life as you age | by Shannon Cunningham

It’s a common adage that works as well for hiking as any other skill. For hikers, hiking can play a major role in staying fit as we age. With a little planning and preparation, we can enjoy time on trails well into our golden years.

The benefits of regular exercise are well established— and those benefits continue as we age. The World Health Organization reports that older adults who are physically active have lower rates of all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bone density loss when compared to less active adults. Active older adults also enjoy a higher level of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, healthier body mass, a lower risk of falls and better cognitive ability.

In short, staying active as you age can give you a better quality of life. Hiking is an easily accessible way to enjoy the benefits of regular exercise. Walking just four hours a week can reduce the chance of being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease after the age of 60. It also helps maintain bone density and keep arthritis pain and joint stiffness at bay.

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Joan Burton (left) and her hiking group choose lower elevation hikes in the winter and higher elevation hikes in the summer. Photo by Donna Hahn.

Real-life benefits

George Chambers, 69, and Peter Stevens, 75, are both members of a hiking group called Trail Mix, which Peter started. They have no intention of letting the years keep them off trail. They both hit the trail at least three times a week.

George was 4 when he first placed feet on a Washington trail. He has been going strong ever since. Continuing to hike over the years has meant he still has the fitness to tackle trails like Mount Pilchuck—which he hiked recently to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first hike to the lookout.

Peter grew up hiking on the Atlantic coast. In 1974, he moved to the Pacific Northwest and soon began exploring trails. Since retiring from the University of Washington 10 years ago, he has helped organize and lead more than a thousand hikes totaling more than 4,300 miles and more than 1.7 million feet of elevation gain.

According to the “World Journal of Surgery,” injuries can take longer to heal in later years due to weakening immune systems and fewer hormones, but exercise like hiking has been shown to increase the body’s ability to heal itself.

George is proud to have been back on trail four weeks after prostate cancer treatment. He has been cancer-free for 12 years. Peter has had six surgeries on his right leg, and he brags about being out hiking after each surgery, even if he was on crutches.

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Trekking poles are helpful for balance, especially on uneven surfaces. Photo by Donna Hahn.

The value of community

Want to keep hiking as you age? One of the very best things you can do is to find other people to hike with regularly.

Hiking isn’t just good for our physical health as we move into our later years. A loss of social connections can lead to depression and even increased chance for dementia as we age. Finding a group of folks to spend time with outdoors has a double benefit. It encourages relationships, which boost mental health, and encourages us to get physical exercise by giving us someone to do it with.

"I look forward to it; we always have such a good time; it’s such a joyful interlude. It’s a very sociable time."

Joan Burton and Goldie Silverman have both been hiking their whole lives and have both written books about getting outdoors with kids.

Joan is the author of “Best Hikes With Kids” (There is now a new edition of that book, by Susan Elderkin, page 18.) Goldie is the author of “Backpacking With Babies and Small Children” a book that she wrote at the suggestion of WTA founder Louise Marshall, as well as other books.

Joan and Goldie, as well as Peter and George, have experienced firsthand  the benefits of hiking regularly with other people.

Joan, 83, has three hiking groups she gets out with, in addition to going on her own hikes. One of her hiking groups, the Thursday Hikers, has been hiking together for 40 years. Many of the members are close to 90. The Tuesday Trekkers is a larger group, and they get out every week. Joan also occasionally hikes with a group of cross-country skiers who gather during their offseason to hike instead.

Goldie Silverman with hiking group. Photo by Michael Cory.
Goldie Silverman (third from the right) and her hiking group put together hikes near urban areas to keep hiking all year. Photo by Michael Cory.

“I look forward to it; we always have such a good time; it’s such a joyful interlude. It’s a very sociable time,” she said. “The hikers become a network  of support.”

Having fellow hikers to get out with is likely to encourage you to go more often. And if you want to keep hiking as you age, you need to well, keep hiking.

Over the years, Joan’s and Goldie’s groups have both adapted as necessary to keep hiking. Goldie says that, over the years, the trips have tended to be closer to town, to make for shorter drives. Their hikes began to include less elevation gain over the years, as well. Joan’s regular Tuesday hiking group offers two options each week—an easier and a harder trail—to meet the needs of  different hikers.

Joan suggests, if you don’t know anyone who is a hiker, to look for people who are already doing physical activity, perhaps at a gym.

“If they’re into fitness, you’re likely to be able to talk them into going outside rather than on machines,” she said.

Goldie, who hikes most often with the Wednesday Walkie Talkies, hikes in the mountains whenever the trails are dry. The rest of the time, the group walks in the Seattle area on urban trails.

“I’m always looking for new adventures,” Goldie said. “I don’t  know what I’d do on Wednesday if I didn’t hike.

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Having hiking companions makes it more likely you'll hit the trail often. Photo by Donna Hahn.

Tips for Hiking in Your Golden Years

Whether you have been hiking for as long as you can remember or are just getting started, here are tips to help get your outdoors for as long as the wilderness calls to you.

  • Know your capabilities and choose routes that match: Respect the terrain. When calculating the time and energy for a trip, consider 1,000 feet of gain to be equal to adding another 1.5 to 2 miles to the trip. If it helps to travel on less rocky trails or those with an easier elevation gain, make those your destination. “The Creaky Knees Guide to Washington: The 100 Best Easy Hikes in the State” by Seabury Blair Jr. is a good resource.
  • Choose your trail carefully: ADA-accessible trails, such as Big Four Ice Caves and the Cispus Braille Trail, allow those with differing abilities to enjoy time in the outdoors with fewer limitations. Urban trails are a good option, especially for beginners or those building back fitness, as they are often designed to be accessible to people with a variety of fitness levels.
  • Meet hikers’ needs: Goldie says that her hiking group plans their routes to allow for a restroom break in the middle and a convenient lunch spot at the end.
  • Be prepared: Just like the Boy Scouts, be prepared. George suggests taking wilderness first-aid and navigation courses for a safer and more enjoyable experience outdoors. Review where you’re going in advance, so you’ll know what to expect.
  • Try hiking poles: Poles offer extra stability—important for reducing the risk of falls—in addition to easing the wear and tear on your knees. Poles also enhance the muscle-building and aerobic benefits of hiking.
  • Try traction devices: Traction devices can make all the difference between finishing a hike safely and having to turn around.

George and Sally Chambers share their adventures on WTA trip reports as GeorgeandSally. Photo courtesy George Chambers.

  • Build a community: Even if it’s just one other person, having someone who will get out with you no matter the weather will help you keep moving all year.
  • Pack carefully: In addition to the standard Ten Essentials, carry sufficient important medications in the event your trip lasts longer than planned.
  • Fight swelling and pain: Use cold streams, elevate extremities or carry a disposable ice pack to fight inflammation and swelling. Use an Epsom salt bath after a hike to treat sore muscles.
  • Hydrate: Our bodies store less water as we age. Be sure to drink water before, during and after a hike.
  • Eat right: Make sure to include high-quality sources of protein like hard-boiled eggs, nuts or sunflower seeds in your diet. Older adults may have higher protein needs to combat the loss of muscle mass and bone density as well as to promote injury recovery.
  • Be safe: Consider carrying a personal locator beacon, which can be a lifesaver in the event of injury or becoming disoriented on trail.
  • Communicate: Let someone at home know where you are going and when you plan to return.
This article originally appeared in the May+Jun 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.