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Nothing Like Hiking to Keep You Young at Heart

October 23, 2000|STEPHANIE OAKES

On a recent trip to Santa Fe, my husband, Chris, and I set out on a hike with my 74-year-old father-in-law. Now, he's no stranger to hiking--since moving to Santa Fe 12 years ago, he's hiked every Wednesday afternoon (year-round) with an "invitation only" hiking group in which he's the youngest member.

Before we left home, my father-in-law gave us--the babes in this crowd of 10 hikers--what seemed like endless instructions for our hike. Realizing that the "to do" list was simply for our safety and comfort, we dutifully followed orders.

Chris and I wore our "broken in" ankle-high hiking boots (large enough to keep our toes from jamming when we turned to head back down the mountain). We each carried plenty of bottled water (my father-in-law explained that he once carried an inexperienced dehydrated hiker down the mountain because she was unaware that plenty of water is the lifeline for endurance activities--especially at high altitudes). And we applied plenty of sunscreen, wore our sunglasses and insect repellent, and brought an extra wool jacket (wool or polypropylene fabrics are best because cotton and down won't keep you as dry if you sweat or get wet from rain). I also brought some dried fruit and nuts to munch on--just in case we didn't make it down the mountain by lunchtime.

As additional safety precautions, every week someone in this hiking group is responsible for checking on expected climate conditions and bringing along a map and compass. This person also arranges a specific hiking route, checks the batteries in the walkie-talkies (used to communicate with each other or a park ranger in case someone gets lost or injured), and brings along a preloaded syringe just in case anyone allergic to insect stings gets stung.

Our hike began at the bottom of the Santa Fe ski basin, which has an altitude of 10,000 feet, for an eight-mile round-trip trek to the summit and back. We started at what seemed to me like a slow pace, but I soon understood that hiking is for the steady turtle not the fast hare.

We all chatted at first about the beauty of the Aspen trees, the serenity of the mountain, and the fresh smell of the clean air. However, we eventually settled into our own quiet rhythm--except my husband, who began to sing. (I'm still not sure if this was a holdover from his Outward Bound days or oxygen deprivation caused by the altitude's thin air.) But it was great to see him enjoying time away from his city job. Several of us picked up broken tree limbs and used them as walking sticks.

About a quarter of the way up the mountain, I began to appreciate the steady pace. This sport is mainly an endurance-building aerobic exercise, but because we were walking with day packs, it soon became a weight-bearing activity as well, helping to strengthen our muscles and bones. The steady climb certainly tested our muscle strength, primarily in our calves, hamstrings, quadriceps and glutei. (If you carry a backpack, the extra weight will enable you to work your upper body and burn even more calories.)

After reaching the top (where we found plenty of lip balm dropped by skiers the season before), we took a few minutes to enjoy the beauty, then began our descent. The ski basin lacked the switchbacks--or even trails--common in many hiking areas, but we walked from side to side anyway to protect our knees.

After our hike (just like any exercise program), we spent some time stretching our muscles before heading home.

Getting Started

To begin hiking, all you need is an interest in the outdoors. Beginners can go on easy flat walks, while the more experienced can head straight up a mountain. If you aren't used to long walks or hills, start with something relatively flat at an altitude of no more than 5,000 feet and only a few miles long. Save longer, higher climbs for when you're in better shape.

Almost every state park has trails ranging from easy to challenging, and using them will cost you little--if any--money. Like walking, hiking combines physical activity with social interaction, which helps increase participation in and commitment to an exercise program.

Here are a few stretches that will loosen up your leg muscles and ease your stride when hiking up and down hills and mountains.

* Straight-leg stretch: Stand in front of a sturdy object that offers several heights on which to rest your foot. (A ladder or tree both work for this stretch, although you can use a variety of sturdy objects of varied heights to accomplish the same thing). Extend one leg out and place your heel high enough on the object to feel a stretch. Don't feel compelled to lean forward or bend your knee. This will take only part of the emphasis away from the hamstrings and onto your lower back. Hold for 10 seconds, then switch feet to stretch your other leg.

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