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Why Not Go Hiking to Lose Weight and Stay in Shape?

A Step in the Right Direction

By Gwyn Fletcher



Want to lose weight and get into shape? Don't diet, hike it. Cheaper than a health club, more accessible than a swimming pool, easier than riding a bike, less time-consuming than weight training and more stimulating than an hour on a treadmill, hiking is the number one way to get healthy-and stay that way. As the fitness craze continues to gain steam, it's not surprising that hiking is the fastest growing outdoor activity. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association Sports & Fitness Participation Report (2009), Americans remain very interested in outdoor sports in spite of economic woes. Leading outdoor activities are freshwater fishing (40.3 million), bicycling (38.1 million), camping (33.7 million), and day hiking (32.5 million).

Why is hiking winning the outdoor popularity contest? For starters, it's dirt cheap-literally. All you need is some ground to walk on and a sturdy pair of shoes that will support your ankles and serve as shock absorbers. Whether it's on a neighborhood trail or a mountain ridge, hiking is merely taking a walk on a foot path, and even that is open to your own interpretation. Unlike health clubs and private gyms, hiking requires no membership dues or monthly payments-you can even bring a friend along without purchasing a guest pass. And you don't have to go back to the same area every time, or pay a transfer fee if you want to try someplace new.

Hiking is also an accessible activity. For example, swimming is an excellent form of exercise, but it's pretty hard to do without a large body of water. And, once the temperature starts to drop, that swimming hole needs to be indoors, often bringing the cost up and the convenience level down even further. To go for a hike, the only place you need to get to is outdoors. Hiking is usually as close as a local park.

Just as you don't need any special equipment for hiking, you also don't need any special skills. Just put one foot in front of the other. As with any physical activity, if you're not currently following a regular fitness routine, you'll want to start out slow, taking leisurely strolls three or four times a week and gradually building your distance and rate. Your first step should always be a quick muscle stretch.

"Things will slow down next month, then I'll have time to get in shape." How many times have you heard that one, or said it yourself? Chances are, things aren't going to slow down. And the older we get, the higher our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and other complications directly or indirectly linked to a lack of physical activity. It takes time to get in shape. In order to gain maximum benefits from a weight training program, you need to spend several hours a week pressing those bars and priming those muscles. Aerobics classes often last up to an hour as well. Unfortunately, time isn't something most people have a lot of these days. According to the American Heart Association, it's best to walk at a vigorous rate for 30 to 60 minutes three or four times a week. However, even low- to moderate-intensity walking can have both short- and long-term benefits, and a brisk 30-minute walk is considered a good workout.

Hiking can also help you save time by enabling you to accomplish two things at once. You can hike to work, or hike to the store to buy groceries (think how much time you'd save if you didn't have to find a parking space). By using hiking as an alternative mode of transportation you can get into shape and still have time to finish the rest of your daily regime.

In addition to being a time-efficient activity, hiking also provides a much better view than indoor alternatives. If you get on a treadmill and start jogging, you'll be exactly where you started when your timer buzzes thirty minutes later and you'll have spent the last half-an-hour staring at the same wall. When you hit the trail, or sidewalk, you add sights, sounds, and smells to your workout.

Once you get into shape, hiking will also keep you that way. A study conducted at Baylor University in Texas found that people who dieted without exercising lost weight quickly, but gained most or all of it back within two years. People who started walking regularly, but did not diet, took longer to start shedding pounds, but two years later, had either maintained the weight loss or were still losing. And keeping in shape may ultimately help you live longer. The results of 43 separate studies by the Center for Disease Control show that regular exercise significantly reduces the chance of heart problems. Regular exercise can also lower blood pressure. More specifically, walking dilates blood vessels and reduces the high insulin levels that produce high blood pressure. Other health benefits include lower cholesterol levels, stronger immune systems, increased bone density, and relief from arthritis and back pains. Furthermore, regular hiking will result in a healthier mental state byreducing depression, stress and anxiety andinstillingan enhanced sense of well-being.

So, the next time you're planning to get away for awhile, instead of spending a lot of money at a fancy spa or private resort, consider a hiking vacation and go camping. For more information about great hiking destinations, as well as lists of local trail clubs or nearby trails, contact American Hiking Society, a national, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Dedicated to promoting hiking and to establishing, protecting and maintaining foot trails in America, American Hiking has over 100 affiliated trail clubs and represents half a million outdoors people by serving as the voice of the American hiker.

To learn more, contact the American Hiking Society at (301) 565-6704 or write to:

1422 Fenwick Lane
Silver Spring, MD 20910
email info@americanhiking.org.

Gwyn Fletcher is director of Communications for American Hiking Society, a hiking and foot trail advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Each year, American Hiking sends teams of volunteer trail workers into the hills and mountains to build and maintain footpaths. These "Volunteer Vacations" involve the construction of new trails and shelters, as well as the maintenance of some of America's most remote and beautiful trails. For more information on taking a Volunteer Vacation, or becoming a member, contact the American Hiking Society.

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