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Experts say hiking good for exercise, mental health - and losing weight

Hikers get some exercise through Blydenburgh Park in

Hikers get some exercise through Blydenburgh Park in Smithtown on June 1. Health experts say hiking is good for your mental health as well. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

Gina Critelli has a treadmill at home, but it’s hard to motivate herself to use it because “it’s just repetitive and boring, and I’m stuck in a basement.”

But Critelli of Bethpage had a smile on her face on a recent sunny Saturday morning as she and about 18 others hiked for six miles around Stump Pond at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown.

“It’s good exercise without feeling like it’s exercise,” said Critelli, 52. “You get to talk to people while you’re walking, so you don’t feel like you’re walking, and you’re looking around and admiring the scenery. I don’t think I could do six miles on the treadmill.”

With the weather warm, thousands of Long Islanders are hitting the hiking trails, from short walks at local parks to dayslong backpacking trips in the Adirondacks. Hiking offers an array of health benefits, said Dr. Brian Cruickshank, a clinical assistant professor of orthopedics at Stony Brook Medicine.

Hiking burns calories, is good for the cardiovascular system, can strengthen bones in the lower part of the body, and can lower blood pressure and control blood sugar, he said. And hiking on inclines can strengthen the abdominal core.

Hiking also is good exercise for people wanting to lose weight and shift from a sedentary to more active lifestyle, because people can gradually build up the distance and difficulty of hikes, Cruickshank added.

Connie Savino, 62, of Holbrook, said it’s also better for her psyche than exercising indoors.

“It’s a great stress release,” she said. “Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.”

Scientific research backs that up.

“There is an emerging body of evidence that indicates that exercising outdoors may be more beneficial for your well-being than [exercising] indoors,” said Gregory Bratman, an assistant professor of nature, health and recreation at the University of Washington. “But more research is needed, and we suspect it affects different people differently.”

Walking in nature may be particularly beneficial. In a study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bratman and other researchers found that participants who walked in a parklike environment reported lower levels of rumination — brooding over past negative actions and experiences — than those who walked near a busy street, and that an area of their brains linked to risk for mental illness had less neural activity.

Quyen Pham, of Central Islip, who led the Nassau Hiking and Outdoor Club excursion that Savino was on, said that after a stressful week, being surrounded by nature puts her at ease.

“You hear the birds. I look around and see the trees, the ground, the flowers,” she said. “You appreciate nature.”

And, unlike with kickboxing, spinning and other indoor exercise, which she also does, she can’t impulsively decide to cut her hike short.

“On a hike, if you go into the woods, you have to finish the hike and go back,” she said. “There’s no Uber out there to pick you up. If I’m on a treadmill, I might get bored and stop after 10 minutes.”

More than 42 million Americans age 6 and older hike, according to a 2016 online survey of more than 24,000 people by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit created by the Outdoor Industry Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based trade group. That is up from fewer than 30 million people in 2007, the foundation said.

Sharon Eversman started hiking five years ago when her doctor encouraged her to exercise because of arthritic knees. The doctor recommended biking or an elliptical machine, but that was too painful for Eversman, so she started hiking. Within a year, the pain in her knees was gone, she said.

Eversman, 52, of Huntington, also started walking from Penn Station to her Manhattan office instead of taking the subway, but “the ground is softer. It has less impact than walking on a sidewalk.”

Long Island, which is mostly flat, is an especially good place to hike, Cruickshank said. “As you start feeling more comfortable and feel you’re getting in better shape,” there are hilly and mountainous areas north of New York City that offer more rigorous workouts, he said.

But trying right off the bat to go on a 10-mile hike in the mountains is a good way to sour on hiking quickly — as well as get blisters and potentially get injured from a trip or fall caused by fatigue, said Wesley Trimble, a program manager for the Silver Spring, Maryland-based American Hiking Society.

“People get themselves into a situation where they’re doing big climbs they’re not accustomed to and they don’t enjoy it, so they might do it once and not do it again,” he said. “By starting slow and building up to it, it’s less likely people will be discouraged.”

Hiking can be for almost anyone, Trimble said. He has a mild form of cerebral palsy that affects his coordination and muscle control, so he uses trekking poles to help stabilize himself. In 2014, Trimble hiked more than 2,600 miles over 139 days from the Mexican to the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail.

A state Department of Environmental Conservation website — and other internet sites — offer trail suggestions for people who use wheelchairs. There are hiking clubs and Meetup groups in the New York metro area geared toward African-Americans, Asians, LGBT people and families with babies and young children. The “Hiking for Lazy People” Meetup group focuses on less strenuous hikes, while other groups organize multiday backpacking excursions in the mountains.

“Hiking is a very inclusive activity,” Trimble said. “There definitely is a trail out there for someone who wants to get outside, whether that be a 15-minute walk in the park, or someone who wants to spend a full summer hiking a long-distance trail.”

HIKING TIPS

If you’re heading out for more than a short hike, the American Hiking Society recommends you bring these 10 “essentials.” Some are especially important if you get lost or hurt.

Appropriate footwear

Map, compass and GPS

Extra water

Extra food

Rain gear and extra clothing

A lighter/matches, flashlight/headlamp and a whistle

A first aid kit

A knife or multipurpose tool

Sunscreen and sunglasses

Daypack/backpack

SOURCE: For more details, go to americanhiking.org/resources/10essentials

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