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BODY WATCH : Hikers, Ho! Hitting the Trail for Your Health


Burned-out runners, yoga students and gym rats are all catching on. "Take a hike" is sound advice.

Hiking is on the upswing, says a spokeswoman for the American Hiking Society in Washington, D.C. About 41 million Americans are day hikers, she says, while 13 million are longer-range backpackers.

Hiking at a stop-and-smell-the-flowers pace won't make people muscle-bound, but it will yield health benefits such as reduction of the risk of certain conditions, including heart disease. Pick up the pace and you'll tone muscles, particularly those in the legs and buttocks. With a little imagination, hikers can even work out their neglected upper body muscles.

One caveat: Although hiking seems low-risk and laid-back, a recent survey found that 80% of hikers experienced ailments or injury. The good news is that most problems are preventable with a modicum of planning.


Stepping Out: A growing number of health clubs are offering members "hiking field trips"--especially in the summer, when indoor workouts can get boring. Mark Stevens, an exercise physiologist who owns the Gym in Brentwood, regularly leads hikes into Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, taking 40 or more members at a time on the 3.6-mile loop.

Andrew Freirich, a Santa Monica businessman, has launched Personal Challenge, a hiking program in the Santa Monica Mountains. He supplies water, hiking instruction and gourmet, low-fat lunches.


Behind the Trend: The surge in hiking reflects the move toward "mind-body" fitness, says Timothy J. Moore, an exercise physiologist at the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, Arlington, Va. "There's been a big surge recently in outdoor cross training, such as hiking and mountain biking," he says. Getting outdoors helps people relieve stress and rediscover the beauty of nature.

Yoga and hiking seem especially compatible. Of 75 yoga students surveyed, about 90% mentioned hiking as their other favored athletic activity, says Jake Jacobson, owner of the Center for Yoga in Pasadena and Larchmont Village. "Both activities are non-competitive and you can 'go inward,' " Jacobson notes. "Yoga movements help offset the tightening of muscles associated with hiking."


The Benefits: "Hiking offers a great way to develop body awareness and balance," Moore says. Because of inclines often involved, a hike "can be more of a strength-training activity than walking."

Regular hikers can expect to develop stronger muscles, especially the quadriceps, hamstring and calf muscles, Stevens says. "The steeper the angle, the better the workout for the buttocks," he adds.

Because hiking is often a start-stop activity, leisurely paced hiking won't yield the same fitness benefits as more intense, continuous exercise such as running.

But hiking provides significant health benefits and burns calories.

Hiking can burn about 200 calories an hour at a leisurely pace, and much more depending on terrain, speed, body size and other factors. Add a 10- or 15-pound backpack and the calorie burn increases by about 15%, according to the American Hiking Society.


Bugaboos: Muscle strains and sprains, cuts, poison ivy, blisters and diarrhea are among the hiker's top complaints, found Dr. Byron J. Crouse, a Duluth, Minn., physician who surveyed 180 backpackers who completed the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.

Most problems are preventable with minimal planning, adds Crouse, who heads the department of family medicine at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "Almost everyone, for instance, admitted to drinking non-purified water," he says, explaining the diarrhea complaints.

Comfort Factors:

* "First-timers should choose a shoe with good ankle support," Stevens says, "because when hiking downhill, there is pressure on the ankle."

* Break in new boots or shoes by wearing them around the house for a few days.

* Dress in layers to be prepared for any weather on the trail.

* Carry and drink plenty of water--aim to take in about 8 to 16 ounces an hour.

* After a hike, especially in grassy or woody areas, check your body for ticks and other critters.


More in Step: Once hiking is a habit, incorporating exercises for the upper body is simple, says Gin Miller, an Atlanta fitness expert and consultant for Step Reebok.

"Say you're on a five-mile hike. Carry a towel or a rubber tube along," she suggests. "Stop every mile or so and do some upper body work. For instance, a supine chin-up: lie down with your chin up. Reach up, find a branch below chest level. If the branch is too high, wrap a towel around it." Or do triceps dips. With hands behind the body and feet out in front, use a tree stump as a brace, she suggests. Dip up and down to work the triceps muscles on the back of the upper arms.

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