We humans were born to walk. It's how we explored, migrated and settled the globe. It's how we maintained the lines of communication in the early days of civilization. And it's an activity our bodies are uniquely suited to. No wonder, then, that walking is so good for us.
Walking and hiking are wonderful exercises for seniors because they can be as low or high-impact as we want them to be. With gentle, gradual conditioning, seniors can maintain or even improve their mobility and get into excellent shape.
Including walking or hiking as part of a regular exercise routine can be highly beneficial for seniors who want to stay limber. In 2014, a randomized clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that structured physical activity programs, such as a brisk walking routine, pushed back the onset of major, disabling mobility problems by an average of 2.6 years.
And the benefits of walking don't begin and end with exercise — it can also be a fun social activity.
Join a walking club
There are plenty of walking clubs and hiking clubs right here in Cincinnati for people who like to exercise and make friends at the same time. And they're not all morning mall walkers. Some, like Hamilton County's Walk Club and the Cincinnati Parks Hiking Club, meet up to hit the trails in local parks and experience nature.
Some research has indicated that participating in a walking club is in fact one of the easiest ways that seniors can improve their physical and mental health. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking group participants had significantly lower blood pressure levels, resting heart rates, body fat percentages and total cholesterol levels than members of the general population.
They also exhibited better lung function, improved general fitness and less frequent symptoms of depression. Walking with members of a club may help seniors to develop better and more lasting healthy behaviors, too. The study's authors noted that three out of four participants in walking groups they evaluated continued participating in them over the long term.
Explore accessible trails
Hiking trails aren't all rough-hewn paths through the woods. There are many paved, gently-sloped hiking and walking trails for seniors with limited mobility. Many are wheelchair-navigable, so even seniors who depend on motorized scooters for mobility can enjoy some time in the fresh, open air.
In Hamilton County, all developed parks have at least one such "Level 1" wheelchair-accessible facility or trail. The Shaker Trace Inner Loop at Miami Whitewater Forest is one example; others include the Harbor and West Branch trails in Winton Woods, the Armleder-Lunken Connector near Lunken Airport and the shared-use trail at Woodland Mound Park.
Make walking and hiking part of your retirement adventures
Consider Nancy Gowler's story. In 1999, at the age of 63, Gowler and her son Rob took a life-changing hike, beginning in Georgia, along the Appalachian Trail. On her first night on the trail, she realized that hiking was much more than a beneficial exercise — it was a way to connect with the world and people around her, in a way she had been unable to do before.
"When I arrived at the stopping place for the night, a group of people were milling around outside of a three-sided shelter. That first night, someone built a campfire and most hikers gathered around to talk about what the day had been like," she wrote.
"A strange thing began happening after this, strange to me because I had never experienced that kind of camaraderie. I felt I belonged somewhere, that I was part of a group. Everyone talked to each other, or exchanged greetings on the trail, whether we were passing each other (or being passed), taking a break, or in a shelter or campsite. Often, if a hiker were taking a break, others who came along would sit down and take a break too. No one seemed to be a stranger."
But you need not strike out on a 2,190-mile-long wilderness trail to find that sense of wonder and belonging. You can get it just by going out and walking in your neighborhood, in the park or at the mall.
Walking is a way to get out and see the world around you. As a species, we've been driven by an explorer's instinct for millennia. Walking helps seniors stay fit and keep their minds sharp. Because it's what we humans are born to do — and the inspiration to take a stroll doesn't diminish with age.