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Aging Well: Hike up your heart rate and your mood

Taking your exercise outdoors offers unique benefits for physical, cognitive, and emotional health.

This biweekly column is sponsored by The Mather in Tysons, Virginia, a forward-thinking Life Plan Community for those 62 and better.

Why work out in a fitness center when you can get a great cardio workout enjoying fresh air and great views?

Of all the opportunities for outdoor exercise around NOVA, hiking may be the most versatile — and one of the most beneficial for your body, brain and mood. It can even impart a sense of awe. “I find hiking very inspiring,” says Cindy Morrow. “We are surrounded by beauty!”

Cindy and her husband Gene have enjoyed hiking together for the duration of their 49-year marriage. When they moved to the D.C. area from the Ozarks in Missouri in 2014, she says, “We were happy to see there are mountains, rivers and amazing hiking opportunities.”

The Morrows are part of a small hiking group of future residents of The Mather, a Life Plan Community that will open in Tysons in 2024. The group gets together every month or two for a day hike, most recently in Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. “Hiking is more fun with a group,” says Cindy. “For one thing, it makes us put something on the calendar and go. The Mather group allows us to make friends with so many interesting people!”

A Walking Workout

Hiking — even on flat land — will exercise muscles including your quadriceps, hamstrings, lower leg and hip muscles. Hiking on an unpaved, slightly uneven trail will also engage the core muscles in your torso. Like any other cardio workout, hiking is good for your cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as sleep quality and weight loss. (A brisk hike can burn up to 550 calories per hour.) And because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it also helps build bone density.

Step Up to a Better Mood

Walking is good for your brain, as well as your body. Through simple exercise, your body begins to release proteins and chemicals which can help lower stress levels and have positive benefits on memory.

Another benefit of hiking is the release of endorphins in your brain. Endorphins are chemicals released in the brain that minimize any physical discomfort, blocking the feeling of pain and causing a natural “feel good” rush.

Hit the Trail, Not the Treadmill

Research shows that taking your exercise outdoors compared to working out in a gym offers unique benefits for physical, cognitive and emotional health:

  • Multiple studies have shown that regular exposure to “green areas” can cause our bodies to relax and let go of stress, as well as ease anxiety. One study found that people in nature had slower heart rates and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who spent time in the city.
  • Walking or exercising outdoors has also been proven to strengthen short-term memory. Simply spending time in nature is also associated with improved concentration and attention spans.
  • Studies have linked time spent in nature with lower levels of inflammation, reduced hypertension and even a stronger immune system.

Research found that people who run outside exert more energy than treadmill runners; they also enjoy it more and therefore will run for longer periods of time.

Want to try a hike? The Morrows recommend Catoctin Mountain Park, Great Falls Park, “anywhere along the Shenandoah,” and Rock Creek Park, among many others.

The Mather, projected to open in Tysons, VA, in 2024 for those 62 and better, is a forward-thinking Life Plan Community that defies expectations of what senior living is supposed to be. With an enviable urban neighborhood location, the community offers easy access to the area’s parks and hiking trails.

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