Spending time in nature is touted as one of the best curatives for the 55-and-over crowd. Just read the latest studies that link nature-based activities to improved physical and emotional health. Or, better yet, ask the estimated 800,000 Canadians in that age bracket who hike and camp.

Despite her impressive long-distance track record, Magdalena Vanderkooy doesn’t describe herself as a lifelong hiker: “I didn’t start hiking until I was 50.” That surprises many people when they learn that Vanderkooy, now 65, has hiked the full length of the Bruce Trail, the 890-km marked footpath from Niagara to Tobermory (much of it along the Niagara Escarpment) and that she’s also walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the ancient 780-km pilgrimage across northern Spain, not once but twice.

In addition, she’s completed two long-distance pilgrimages in Portugal. Vanderkooy also volunteers with the Bruce Trail hiking club, where she supports novice hikers, and she’s an active member of one other urban hiking group that covers anywhere from 20 to 25 kilometres of pathways in Toronto each week.

“I got into hiking after a lifetime of trying out fitness programs and buying gym memberships,” says Vanderkooy. “Going to the gym felt like a duty. Getting out on a trail in nature calls me. When I’m immersed in the beauty of nature, I’m very conscious of my body, and the mind-body connection. Hiking has made me stronger, physically and emotionally. It’s often described as detoxifying – and it’s true. I don’t know why more therapists don’t conduct sessions while hiking.”

“Being in nature clears my mind. By challenging myself outdoors, scrambling up a mountainside, I’ve learned to be proud of what my body can do – especially as I get older and and my bones are creakier.”

Leigh McAdam, 61, not only credits hiking and camping for her robust health, but she turned her lifelong passion for the outdoors into a paying gig. The creator of the successful HikeBikeTravel, McAdam launched her active-travel brand after career stints as a geologist and later as a professional dietician: “Nature-based recreation provided me with a niche, but I think the real payoffs have been the health benefits. Hiking and camping, spending lots of time in nature, has kept me fit and energetic. Being in nature clears my mind. By challenging myself outdoors, scrambling up a mountainside, I’ve learned to be proud of what my body can do – especially as I get older and and my bones are creakier. My advice for people starting to hike or camp later in life: ‘Just Do It.’ Learn bit by bit, one step at a time, and the benefits will come.”

More and more health professionals are lauding the benefits of Vitamin N (for nature) or “green exercise,” a phrase coined by Dr. Alan Logan, a Toronto-trained naturopath who, with Harvard physician Dr. Eva Selhub, co-authored Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Health, Happiness and Vitality. Spending time in nature is good for the mind and body: stress hormones and heart rate go down, while immune systems and mood improve. Selhub maintains that exercising outdoors can also help prevent depression and diabetes, and slow the cognitive decline of older adulthood.

Carleton University in Ottawa conducted a study a few years ago that analyzed the moods and thoughts of two groups of participants: One group, which walked in green spaces outdoors, and another team, who walked through underground tunnels. Those who walked in nature felt and performed much better than those who walked indoors.

“There are many tools we physicians can use to care for people. One of the most common tools is conventional medicine, but hiking in nature is another valid tool.”

And there are physicians such as Dr. Conrad Sichler of Burlington, ON, who sometimes surprises patients by sketching maps to the nearest hiking trail or conservation area instead of writing prescriptions for antibiotics and blood-pressure medication. “There are many tools we physicians can use to care for people,” says Dr. Sichler. “One of the most common tools is conventional medicine, but hiking in nature is another valid tool.”

Both Vanderkooy and McAdam say that fear stops many 50-and-better Canadians from embracing outdoor activities. The best solution? “Join a group,” says McAdam. That’s what prompted Hike Ontario to launch the Seniors’ Hiking Initiative – Opportunities for Both Novice and Experienced Hikers. Such groups are trending across Canada.

One of the key benefits of hiking and backpacking with others, says Tom Friesen, president of Hike Ontario, is learning about the gear – especially if people have concerns about joint pain and fatigue.

Says Friesen, “Outdoor gear is so much more advanced today. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all backpacks for trekkers. And ultra-heavy boots are a thing of the past. Hiking boots are now lightweight, weather-proof and designed for diverse foot shapes. Sturdy but lightweight trekking poles can help people who struggle with bad knees and tire easily.”

Vanderkooy doesn’t hesitate to recommend back braces and over-the-counter knee stabilizers to those who need them: “Our bodies change as we get older. What’s important is that you equip yourself with whatever you need to be active in nature.”

Strapping on a pair of hiking boots could be your first step on the path to healthier living.

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Hike Safe, Stay Connected

Fear of getting lost or injured (and stranded) on a hike is a serious concern. Many Canadian hikers who venture into areas beyond cell phone range are turning to SPOT-ON, a satellite-tracking device with a built-in two-way messenger that enables users to track and share their progress, send and receive SMS messages and notify emergency services if someone is injured in a remote wilderness area, for instance.

Also in the works, a team of trainees with AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network, has developed ARCtag, an automated, rapid-communication tool that enables a group of hikers to stay connected via Bluetooth. The ARCtag device sends visual and auditory alerts to all members of the group when it detects a hiker has fallen, gets separated, stops moving, becomes lost or is walking too fast or too slow. The device (not yet in market) is to designed to enhance safety during guided hikes and outdoor recreation tours for older adults by lessening response time in case of injury and reducing the likelihood of members getting lost.

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine.

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