Updated: Jun 22, 2020
I started The Healthy Hiker because I saw people, usually women, left at the lodge or the trailhead while the rest of the group went hiking. The same folks posted pictures from their family’s great adventure, but with the notation that they didn’t see the awesome view for themselves. These people thought that their exploring days were over. I’m here to tell you; you’re never too old for adventure!
Get healthy, stay strong
Deficits in the components of fitness (endurance, flexibility, balance, and strength) are what prevent people from taking an epic trek or even a weekend hike. Today’s blog focusses on the strength aspect. As you age, you begin to lose muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia. By the time you are 45-years-old, you've lost a noticeable amount of muscle. Without strength training, that muscle loss continues at a rate of up to 1% every year. This loss of lean body mass is what causes older persons to become frail and lose function, including the ability to continue doing the activities they love.
The problem with muscle loss
Don’t base your assumptions of how much fat-free body mass you have on your appearance. The aging process replaces muscle with fat, so you may not detect a visible difference in your physique. Plus, this process happens slowly over years, making it even harder to notice the changes happening beneath your skin. In addition, humans have an amazing ability to adapt. You can walk several miles daily and still have significant weaknesses in some areas. Unaddressed, these weaknesses can lead to decreased function as well as injury.
For example, can you get up off of the ground without any assistance? That’s right, lie down on the floor, then stand up without holding on to anything. If you find this difficult, you’ve got some room for improvement in lower body strength.
Lower body weakness places older persons at a higher risk of falling. Because of the uneven terrain, people who hike are also at a greater risk of falling. Therefore, even when hiking on relatively flat terrain, any underlying weakness increases your already elevated risk of falling. Falling is dangerous because of the potential resulting injury. As an older person with osteopenia, falling becomes even more concerning.
Muscle strength is also what helps propel you up inclines. So strong legs are needed to make it to the summit and take in the views, or to scramble over trees and boulders blocking the trail. Strong muscles also aid in balance, and help you carry needed supplies without fatigue.
How to combat muscle loss
The good news is that older persons can continue to build muscle through resistance training. While the muscular gains may happen at a slower rate, strength can return and improve function and safety. No need to be intimidated by the bros at your local gym - begin at home with bodyweight exercises. Here are a few examples of lower body exercises to help you become a more capable and safer hiker. Perform these two to three times per week.
With feet hip-distance apart, bend at the knees like you are sitting back into a chair, then stand back up. Go down in a controlled manner for a count of 2, then stand back up on a count of 2. If you're feeling wobbly, go ahead and put a chair behind you in case you need to rest. Start with 3 sets of 6-10 reps. Got that handled? Hold a bag of sugar, flower, or cat food to add a little extra resistance.
Taking a wider than normal step, bend the front knee and come up on the back toe until the back knee almost touches the ground. Then stand up. Step forward with the other leg and repeat on the other side. Continue the exercise alternating legs in a slow and controlled manner, for a count of 2 going down and standing up. Perform 3 sets of 6-10 reps. Add extra weight with a loaded backpack as needed.
Side lying hip abduction
Lie on your side with a slight bend in both knees. raise the top leg as high as it will go, then return to the start position. Repeat for 2 counts up and 2 counts down, 6-10 reps for 3 sets on each side.
Stand holding on to a wall or counter if needed for balance. Raise up on toes for a count of 2 then lower back down for a count of 2. Perform 3 sets of 10 to 25 reps. Perform without holding on if able. Then progress to performing on one leg, holding on for balance when needed.
Support the strength
If you’re going to spend the time building muscle, make sure your body has the nutrition it needs to repair and gain more muscle mass. Protein is the primary building block of muscle. Our bodies slow down their protein production as we age. Therefore, you might need to supplement that protein through your diet (assuming no kidney disease). A guideline for protein intake for older persons is the need for 1.2 to 4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. That means, if you weigh 140 pounds (63.5 kilograms), you should eat between 127 grams to 254 grams each day.
While that might sound like a lot, here are some examples of protein content in foods to help you structure your diet. A large egg has six grams of protein. A four-ounce lean beef patty has about 27 grams of protein, while a four-ounce turkey patty has 22 grams. A one-cup serving of chicken breast contains 43 grams of protein.
Older persons sometimes struggle with a lack of appetite. Don’t worry. Additional exercise and strength training will boost your hunger, helping make sure you get all the extra nutrition needed to support your program.
Still not convinced?
So you’re thinking, "That strength training sounds nice for someone else. Someone who has been fit forever or knows their way around a bicep curl. I’m too far gone and have lost too much muscle already." But still, you have this nagging dream of hiking to Delicate Arch or seeing the view from the top of Pikes Peak. Let’s talk about an individualized program just for you to help you reach your adventure goals. Schedule a call with me today!
The above information is not considered as medical advice. Please consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.