Hiking has a number of health benefits, especially for people with arthritis. However, some people may feel that their arthritis prevents them from hiking. Actually, people with arthritis can enjoy and benefit from hiking if they plan ahead and make a few modifications.
Benefits of hiking with arthritis
Like other forms of exercise, hiking has multiple health benefits. It is good cardiovascular exercise, lowering blood pressure and the risk of disease of the heart and blood vessels. It aids in weight loss. It increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin, lowering one’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Like other forms of weight-bearing exercise, it can strengthen bones and lower the risk of osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle, increasing the risk of fracture. Exercise also improves mood, lowering the risk of depression, and exercising outdoors seems to have added psychological benefits.
In a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers used data from several studies to compare the effects of exercising in natural environments versus exercising indoors. People who exercised in natural environments reported increased feelings of revitalization, increased energy, and positive engagement, as well as decreased tension, confusion, and anger. They also enjoyed outdoor activity more and were more likely to do it again.
People with arthritis can reap even greater benefits. Weight loss from hiking can take stress off the joints, especially the hips and knees. Furthermore, hiking on hilly terrain can strengthen quadriceps muscles and the muscles that stabilize the knees, which ultimately protects them from injury.
Another benefit of hiking that people often don’t consider is its effects on the cartilage, the tissue that acts as a shock absorber in joints. Unlike most other tissues in the body, cartilage has no blood supply, so it must get oxygen and other nutrients from the fluid surrounding it. Walking and hiking causes a constant compression and release of cartilage, which draws fluid into the tissue to nourish it and expels the fluid containing inflammatory waste products.
Still, hiking is more strenuous than many people think, and it’s a lot more fun if you’re physically fit to begin with. A good way to start is to take short hikes on fairly level terrain and gradually take longer and steeper hikes. Other activities that build endurance and strengthen the leg muscles include climbing stairs, biking, and more active forms of yoga.
Choosing your hiking trail
There are hikes for all tastes and activity levels. Some people like to take short hikes at the nearest city or state park. For novice hikers, this may be the best place to start. Some folks, especially more experienced hikers, may yearn for more breath-taking (and considerably more challenging) national parks like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yosemite in California, Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, Acadia in Maine, or Everglades in Florida.
Wherever you go to hike, whether it is a state park or a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, it’s a good idea to have a map. If walking downhill bothers your knees, find a hike without a lot of ups and downs. Plan a route that won’t be too taxing in case your knees start to get sore. In some cases, you can plan a long hike but note junctions where you can loop back to the starting point. Most state and national parks have trail guides, and the Appalachian Trail Club has maps encompassing the entire trail. Many books and apps also describe and map trails by region. A good place to look is your local public library or bookstores. When you have a trail map in hand, it’s a good idea to use a yellow highlighter to mark the specific route you plan to take.
People who love natural outdoor settings but don’t like difficult climbs may want to check out the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Throughout large sections of the United States, old train tracks have been abandoned and removed, and the conservancy has been in the process of converting them into user-friendly trails for hiking and biking. Such unused rail beds are common, and you can find the closest ones to you on a searchable database at www.railstotrails.org.
Hiking tips for people with arthritis
Let’s start with the backpack. It is extremely important to get a backpack that fits well so that your hips and lower back take the brunt of the weight rather than your shoulders. Consider having a salesperson help you choose a properly fitting backpack.
If you have arthritis, it’s especially important to pack light, bringing only the essentials like plenty of water and light snacks. You may also want to pack extra clothing such as a fleece or light windbreaker if you expect temperatures to get cooler or windier or a light rain slicker if rain is in the forecast. A first-aid kit is essential, and most camping outlets carry first-aid kits that are compact and lightweight.
It may also be a good idea to pack painkillers because nothing can slow down a hike — or make it less than fun — than sore knees. A cell phone could also be helpful in case of an emergency — and many are equipped with GPS systems — but don’t depend on it, since the battery could die or you could lose the signal. Bring a map and a compass as well.
When you’re hiking, it is best to dress in multiple layers. That way, you can adjust to changes in temperature or activity level. The most important layer is the underwear. Forget those cotton long johns! Cotton tends to soak up sweat and cling, which can lead to hypothermia if the air turns cooler or there is significant wind — conditions often prevalent on mountaintops. Experts recommend underwear made of polyester or polypropylene, materials that wick moisture away from the body and allow it to evaporate. Polyester fleece makes an ideal second layer because it traps in body warmth while wicking moisture away from the body. For an outer layer, you may want to wear water-resistant, wind-resistant pants and a windbreaker. If rain is likely, wear a waterproof rain jacket. Even if rain is not in the forecast, it’s a good idea to put one in your backpack. Because up to 80% of body heat is lost through the head and neck, it’s a good idea to wear a hat or at least pack one.
Proper footwear is also important. When hiking, you want to wear waterproof, well-fitting boots or shoes with good arch support and breathability. Before taking any long hikes, be sure to break them in. Also consider wearing insoles, which can ease the impact of hiking on your joints.
To relieve stress on the knees, bring hiking poles, also known as trekking poles. They can help decrease stress on the hips and knees, especially when hiking downhill. However, not all models work for people with arthritis of the hands, arms, or shoulders. Fortunately, trekking poles with wide grips are available for people who have arthritis of the hands.
Hikes, especially long hikes, are best done early in the day, before you engage in any other strenuous exercise. Starting early also allows you plenty of time to complete your hike if you become sore or fatigued. Another important rule of thumb is to allow twice as long to come down a climb as you did to hike upward. Before you begin your hike, plan when you’re going to turn around, especially if there’s a risk of being out on the trails after dusk.
While you’re hiking, remember to take breaks. Every so often, find a large rock to sit on, have some water, and stretch. You can take your backpack off and stretch your arms, shoulders, and hamstrings. Just remember not to sit still for too long or you’ll risk having your joints freeze up.
The benefits of hiking are tough to resist. People who live with arthritis can reap the rewards by planning ahead and making the necessary modifications.
Want to learn more about exercising with pain? Read “Exercise 101: Finding the Right Exercises for Pain Relief” and “Exercise & Arthritis.”