I recently read a terrific article by the late and celebrated environmental journalist Phyllis Austin titled “On Reaching the End of the Trail” from the November/December 2016 issue of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s magazine. The article tackles the emotional impact of being forced to give up physical activity because of one’s health. Phyllis was an avid outdoor adventurer for nearly her entire life, but at the age of 74 she had to give it all up because of her frail health and immobility.
I, too, am an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast. I’ve hiked on four of the seven continents and as of this writing I’ve summited 42 of the 48 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire. For those of us that love the outdoors, we find our spirit out there. The physical challenge and feeling of accomplishment generates a sense of euphoria that I’d argue is better than any pain medication on the market.
Yet Phyllis’ article reminded me that regardless of your physical fitness, the harsh reality is that bodies break down. There is a tremendous mental toll of not being able to perform an activity that one’s body and mind needs. Most outdoor enthusiasts eventually experience painful joints, knees, hips, backs, feet and shoulders. That covers just about every major joint, doesn’t it? Most often the breakdown is associated with overuse, muscle imbalance, and reduced range of motion and strength.
As we age, the body does not rebound as quickly after strenuous activity. So what to do? Throw in the towel and just go quietly into retirement? Absolutely not! The key to longevity in relation to physical activity is all in the preparation. I want to have active longevity!
By considering the different physical demands needed for a particular activity, a person can adequately condition their body to handle the requirements of that endeavor. Let’s break it down into flexibility, endurance and strength.
The body has a nice way of making up for inadequacies. If one joint is restricted due to stiffness or lack of muscle length, the joints above it or below it will make up for it by increasing their range of motion. This often leads to a joint overextending its normal mobility, which then sets up the joint for potential breakdown and alteration of your body mechanics.
The need for a muscle to have adequate flexibility for performance is easily demonstrated with bungee cords. Think of two bungee cords of the same size, length and diameter: One is stretched to full capacity and the other is pulled just to 50 percent of its possible length. When those two cords are let go, the fully-stretched cord will release the most amount of energy. If you overstretch the cord (or a muscle), you run the risk of it tearing and losing the potential for releasing energy.
The ability to move a combination of joints through your available range of motion is your first priority. Remember: motion before strength. If you can’t move it, you can’t strengthen it! One idea is to incorporate yoga moves that address a variety of postures into your warm-up. I like sun salutation, which is a series of different postures that involve all the major joints working simultaneously and targeting both sides of the joints. This ensures a good warm-up that increases mobility of the spine, hips, knees, ankles and arms. Yoga represents a form of dynamic flexibility, actively moving through range of motion and engaging more than one muscle group at a time. Remember: stretching, especially dynamic stretching, can take on many forms and require different levels of readiness. Make sure you get good advice that suits your current level of conditioning and also addresses your flexibility goals.
The body is being asked to perform a sustained activity for a prolonged period of time. Hiking, depending on the terrain, may require a good deal of balance and upper-body strength, but let’s stick to the basics. The goal of hiking is to get somewhere in a forward direction. Work on long, fast-paced walks with short runs. Doing some activities on grass such as walking lunges, squats, high skipping and carioca drills will get your body ready for the demands on uneven terrain as well as strengthen your quads and hamstrings for constant inclines.
Other activities, such as tennis, require endurance but on a different level. The stopping, starting and explosive movements are much different than hiking. Tennis requires a significant amount of lateral, or side-to-side, motion. Doing activities such as plyometrics, the dreaded burpees interspersed with jumping jacks, side to side lunges, planks and pushups will get your body used to on-demand bursts of activity and will also improve strength.
It is important to choose wisely; too much of one activity or workout can cause a breakdown not just physically but psychologically in terms of boredom. Just hiking or just playing tennis never gives your body a break, and without some alternative activities to keep you fit and mentally challenged to do your favorite sport or activity, you may find yourself sidelined.
I’m sure you’ve heard that strength is all about the core. This is true to a certain extent. In order for your power muscles — glutes, hamstrings and quads — to work at their maximum potential, you must have a strong and stable core. Imagine Gumby playing tennis.
The beauty of core strength is that it can be incorporated into your dynamic stretching and your endurance programs. Add a plank after the burpees. Run, jump, skip, hop and then maintain a static one-legged stance for 30 seconds. Weight training using machines will target specific muscle groups, however, incorporating body weight resistance or free weights into your strengthening program gives you an edge in that you must use your core muscles and other supporting muscles to perform the exercise.
Does the same conditioning program work for all activities? My motto is something is better than nothing and any strength and conditioning program can be beneficial to an extent. However, today we are talking specifically about active longevity (perhaps a new term we just coined), so we need to really think about getting good advice specific to keeping your body ready for your next adventure.
Just as medication needs to be prescribed for the right patient, at the right time, in the right dose, a solid conditioning program needs to be prescribed for the participant at the right time, in the right dose, and, additionally, focusing on the right activity! No matter where you find your spirit — in the mountains, on the tennis court, or even at the gym — for active longevity, get good advice!