Balance vs Falling — a Hiker’s Challenge

Balance Matters!

Ralph demonstrates importance of balance
Ralph has great balance (Torres del Paine. Patagonia)

The last time I was in an airport, I witnessed an impressive (to me, anyway!) feat. A young woman, while walking across the waiting area, noticed that one of her shoes was untied. She preceded to stop and tie the undone lace while balancing on the other foot. 

I can’t confidently do that; I’m not certain if I ever could have done so. I do know, however, that I always used to stand on one foot while getting dressed. Now I usually sit on the bed or lean against a wall when putting on slacks or a skirt. I don’t really need to, and part of it is laziness, but it’s also an indication that I am less trusting of my ability to balance.  

When I was a kid, I thought nothing of walking along a curb or a narrow plank. Now I have second thoughts when I come to a stream crossing that involves using rocks or a log. Unless the rocks are very stable or the planks across a stream are wide, I much prefer to wade through. 

After my observation at the airport, I gave all of this some thought. I considered the fact that falls can be a very serious matter for seniors. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that “one in every three adults age 65 and older falls” each year. (I suspect that 1 in 3 of any age falls each year, but that’s another matter.) The CDC also says that falls are the leading cause of injury death for this age group and “in 2009, about 20,400 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries”. Even if older adults do not die from their falls, they are likely to sustain serious injuries that limit their activities and/or send them to a wheelchair. 

Even though I have very healthy bones and am active, I have been slacking off and not continuing to do these simple exercises.  Recognizing that a decline in stability is not serving me, I recently elected to sign up for a nearby adult-ed class that focuses not only on strength training and stretching, but also on balance. 

From past experience, I know that I will see improvement. I remember how gratifying it is to have quick results from any physical regimen! Whereas most exercise seems to take forever to show any improvement, a few simple routines can make a world of difference in a short time.  

I love my hiking poles and will continue to use them for their many benefits, but it is still important to have good balance for day-to-day activities as well as hiking ones. 

Here are three things that have worked for me:
1. Start by standing (near a chair or other stable object if necessary for safety) on one foot and lifting the other for increasingly lengthy times. (I often do this (eyes open!) when doing other simple tasks — such as waiting for the microwave to heat water for tea, or when brushing my teeth.) When you are able to stand on the one foot for at least a minute, try doing this with your eyes closed. (recommended by my chiropractor, Richard Teel of Novato, CA.) 

2. Stand on both feet, shoulder length apart. Walk 3 steps forward, then lift one foot and hold it up for one count. Walk another 3 steps forward and lift one foot again. Then take 3 steps backward, hold, 3 more back. Then go to the right 3 steps and hold, repeat. Then go to the left 3 steps and hold, repeat. Continue this series of stepping 3 steps forward, back, side, side, but with longer times of holding the one foot up. Increase to 2 counts, then 3, and then 10.  (taught by instructor, Francesca Weiss, at Acalanes Adult Center, Walnut Creek, CA)

3. Sign-up for classes and practice in yoga, chi gong, and tai chi. Many communities have Adult Ed exercise classes that are low-cost — sometimes even free for seniors. 

Hikers and Backpackers
If you want to keep hiking and backpacking, keep in mind that you need more than strength and endurance. No matter what your age, you also need to have good balance because falls are the single most common cause of hiker fatalities! 
 
Happy trails,
Susan Alcorn, backpack45

author of Walk, Hike, Saunter: Seasoned Women Share Tales and Trails; Patagonia Chronicle: On Foot in Torres del Paine;
Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago; We’re in the Mountains Not over the Hill: Tales and Tips from Seasoned Women Backpackers.
www.susandalcorn.com

 

 

Gratitude for our trails

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Gratitude for Sunol Regional Park - rocky outcrop scene
Gratitude for Sunol Regional Park, Alameda County, CA

Here in the S.F. Bay Area, the days have been so mild with daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s, it’s hard to believe that it’s almost Thanksgiving. However, when it starts getting dark at 5 PM, and colder, we realize we have to work a bit harder to fit hikes into our shorter daytime hours.

This reminds me that I have much to appreciate about where I live, why I try to support environmental causes, and how grateful I am for the thousands of people here who work to protect our environment.

Sunol Regional Park, Alameda County, CA

In particular, I am reminded of the importance of the regional parklands around me, which…

  • provide hundreds of miles of trails that I can hike. 
  • bring ever-changing displays of flowers, trees, and other plants. 
  • have quiet places to clear my head and exercise my body.
  • inspire my writing and photography with its scenic beauty.
  • support wildlife—from ladybugs covering entire branches; herons stalking their prey; hawks soaring overhead; flickers hammering cavities in tree branches to build their nests.  
  • offer the opportunity to gain perspective on our place on this earth.
  • allow free, or inexpensive, visits to all who want to come. 

And, people are instrumental in what happens…

  • by envisioning the setting aside of parcels of land to create parklands.
  • when they work to acquire properties that would otherwise turn into developments.
  • by volunteering to help with fund-raising, to interface with the public at the kiosks and gift shops, and by organizing work parties for weed control.
  • when they become park employees that build fences and picnic tables, clear out invasive plants, repair storm damaged trails and roadways, and educate park visitors. 
  • by voting in tax measures to support and improve our parks

Galen Rowell, photographer, climber, author (1940-2002) in  Bay Area Wild: A Celebration of the Natural Heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area wrote,  “The San Francisco Bay Area holds the most extensive system of wild greenbelts in the nation, with more than 200 parks and other protected areas lying within forty miles of the city.”

We are truly blessed to live here. 

Is 10,000 a magic number?

What about 10,000 steps?

Along the Vezelay, FR., Camino route.

For many years, 10,000 has been given as the magic number of steps to take daily to improve our fitness level and boost our longevity. More recently, however, we’ve read that 10,000 is really an arbitrary number. In one study of women (average age 72), click here, it was found that 4,000 steps per day was beneficial. Additionally, the study said that anything over 7,500 steps brought no additional benefit.

That is not to say that counting steps isn’t a helpful tool; it can be. It is an fairly effective method of keeping track of your steps and mileage. Just as writing in a food diary is a more accurate way of seeing what your caloric intake is than relying on a running total in your head, a step counter will probably keep you more honest. And, as the study stated, for most people, any increase in steps is helpful. 

For us as hikers, another takeaway is that counting steps is not a well-rounded way to become trail-ready, particularly if your aim is longer hikes and multi-day backpack trips. Nevertheless, I find aiming for 10,000 motivating, and I am relieved to learn that I am not harming myself when I don’t reach that number. 

In my article, Training for Walking, Hiking, and Backpacking, you’ll find plenty of advice to achieve greater hiking stamina and strength that goes beyond counting steps.