Time for Spring training

Author: Elizabeth Dailey, MD, orthopedic surgeon

Spring is here! Living in Marin County with its mountain top views and beautiful trails, we naturally turn our thoughts at this time to the great outdoors. On a beautiful day, is there anything better than a walk around Lake Bon Tempe or a hike to the beach on the Tennessee Valley trail? How about a Sunday bike ride along the Mill Valley-Sausalito path?

Exercise is the key to a healthful life, whether it’s to restore our health after illness or injury or to ensure that we stay healthy for as long as we can as we age. With the many opportunities we have in our area to walk, hike or bike, extra benefits such as fresh air, the beautiful scenery and the chance to commune with Mother Nature are ours as well.*

All of us walking, hiking and biking enthusiasts, however, would be smart to take inventory of our fitness levels now before we hit the trails in earnest. After being less active during the winter months, we may find that our leg muscles are a little flabby and our endurance for long treks may not be as great as we remember it was.

To prevent injury and to get the most enjoyment and health benefits out of your outdoor exercise program, it’s a good idea to begin by doing some “spring training.”

However fit you are, hiking or walking for long distances or uphill does cause stress to the body especially the hip and knee areas. Preparation and modifications to your exercise routine can go a long way to minimize discomfort.

  • Develop an exercise regimen to strengthen your leg muscles: your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves.
  • Start out on more level, even trails or bike paths, gradually increasing the distances and level of difficulty as you become stronger and fitter.
  • Once you begin your trek, warm up slowly and stretch. Cool down and stretch again after your hike or bike ride.
  • Consider using trekking poles or walking sticks to help with balance and to support your joints.
  • Carry a lighter backpack or use a waist pack.
  • Be sure your boots or athletic shoes fit well and are comfortable. Wear supportive braces if needed and use shock absorbing insoles for your shoes to better protect your knees.

For many people, especially with knee and hip disorders such as arthritis, a long walk or a vigorous hike may seem out of reach. It doesn’t have to be. Exercise is actually beneficial to people with arthritis – it increases the range of motion in the joint, strengthens muscles, improves balance and helps build endurance.

Begin with manageable distances and build your intensity within your comfort level from there. Alternatively, non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming, bicycling and strength training are helpful for reducing pain and improving function for people affected by arthritis. Varying your exercise routine can also allow for “cross-training” and can help prevent overuse injuries from just one activity.

Be sure to check with your physician before going on a hike. Strenuous physical activity can make arthritis pain worse and further damage your joints but people with less-severe arthritis may find hiking and other forms of physical activity actually reduces pain over the long term by maintaining range of motion and strengthening your muscles. This helps to support the joint and reduces arthritis joint pain.

To get the most out of your walks and hikes:

  • Start slow. Take a brief walk around your block do a workout on an exercise bicycle, gradually increasing the time you spend exercising or how hard you exercise.
  • Build comfort into every step. Make sure your shoes are broken in and that they provide solid support. Wear gel or supportive insoles.
  • Use trekking poles or a walking stick to provide balance and reduce pressure on joints.
  • Stretch before you walk or hike. Stop and rest throughout the hike and repeat stretches for muscles that may have tightened up.
  • Before you go, take the recommended dosages of anti-inflammatory medications to help minimize arthritis pain. Take along a lightweight icepack or wrap to use if arthritis flares up.
  • Try to hike early in the day before undertaking any other exercise. Also, if cool, damp weather causes you to have arthritis pain, plan to hike on dry, warm days.

The good news is that people with arthritis don’t have to give up physical activity. In fact, they shouldn’t. If you love walking, hiking or biking, find a way to keep enjoying these activities. Exercise is one of the best treatments we have, so let’s all get outdoors and enjoy it!

*Check out recommendations for enjoying Marin County’s many “healing places” at www.maringeneral.org/hp