Summer’s here! The days are long and the temperatures are warm, and it’s the perfect time to go outside and get moving. Whether it’s something as simple as a walk around the block or cooling off with a few laps in the pool, regular exercise can have a positive impact on your health.
Exercise improves your muscle strength and flexibility, balance and weight, and also helps maintain strong bones and reduce high blood pressure. Plus, physical activity is a great mood booster—especially when you’re outside enjoying nature and all that summer has to offer.
Walk This Way
Walking is one of the simplest, most enjoyable exercises you can try. You don’t need any special equipment or training, and unless you have a condition like diabetes or heart or pulmonary disease, most people don’t need their doctor’s permission to start walking. “If you haven’t walked in a while, though, be sure to take it easy at first,” says Thomas S. Weber, MD, medical director of Sentara RMH Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. “A half-mile is a good target for your first walk.”
Walking also is an excellent weight-bearing activity, says Dr. Weber. “Our bones are dependent on that kind of movement to maintain their strength,” he notes. “Weight-bearing exercises require your bones to support your body’s weight. These activities—unlike exercises such as swimming—force you to work against gravity and are essential for healthy bones.”
On the Trail
If you want a little more of a challenge, Virginia has no shortage of great places for hiking. While hiking generally takes more effort than walking, the rewards for your health can be greater, too. Most hikes near Charlottesville and Harrisonburg will require you to go up and down some hills, working your heart and your leg muscles more than a typical neighborhood walk.
Going on regular hikes also helps to strengthen muscles and improve balance. “As people become more sedentary in their 50s and beyond, they tend to have more trouble with balance and movement,” says Matthew J. Panzarella, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Sentara Martha Jefferson Orthopedics.
Hiking can be a great activity for a warm summer day, since many trails are well shaded. If you plan to hike somewhere like Shenandoah National Park, be sure to follow the safety tips in this article and dress appropriately, since weather conditions at higher elevations in the park can be quite different from those at lower elevations.
Ready to Run
If you’re looking to burn more calories and boost your heart rate during exercise, running and jogging can be good alternatives to walking. “You can burn the same amount of calories on a short run that you could during an hour-long hike,” says Dr. Weber. “Requiring more leg strength, cardiovascular health and balance than walking, however, running isn’t something you should undertake lightly. While most people can start walking or go for a hike without talking with their doctor, it’s a good idea to get your doctor’s approval before you start running.”
Running and jogging also place a lot of stress on the kneecaps, and many people who go from a sedentary lifestyle right into jogging will develop knee pain, according to Dr. Weber. To avoid pain and injury, start slowly and build up to longer distances. Programs like the Couch to 5K, which encourages a gradual increase in running each week, can help build up your jogging endurance, he adds. “I highly recommend that people start with aggressive walking first. Once you can walk several miles without shortness of breath or leg pain, then you can consider a walk/jog program that gradually progresses over several weeks.”
Low-Impact, Joint-Friendly Exercises
Cycling and swimming are low-impact activities that almost anyone can enjoy, but they’re especially helpful for people with joint pain or injuries. “Cycling is great for cardiovascular health, and it’s very low-impact,” says Dr. Panzarella. “So it’s good for people with joint problems—particularly in the hips, knees and ankles.” Dr. Panzarella recommends cycling for his patients with knee and hip arthritis, as well as for patients needing rehabilitation after surgery, since cycling strengthens the thigh muscles.
Swimming is another low-impact aerobic activity that works the heart while taking pressure off the joints. “Swimming can be beneficial if your knees or hips bother you, allowing you to do more activity with less pain,” says Dr. Panzarella, who notes that it’s important to do some stretching before you swim to avoid shoulder problems. Even a simple pool exercise like walking in waist-high water has cardiovascular benefits and improves balance, he notes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week to get the heart beating faster. “Any exercise you do can have benefits,” says Dr. Panzarella. “It’s important that you get out there and do some sort of exercise.”
Summer Exercise Safety
Follow these basic tips to help ensure your safety and avoid injury and heat-related illness.
• Prehydrate: Drink water or sports drinks before you exercise. This is especially key for those over 40.
• Continue drinking fluids while you exercise. How much you should consume depends on your body, the type of activity and the weather.
• Don’t overhydrate, however, which could lower your blood sodium level too much. Make sure you get some salt in your system periodically with a sports drink or a snack like pretzels.
• Exercise first thing in the morning or in the evening, when the temps are usually cooler.
• Choose sturdy, comfortable shoes that are appropriate for the activity.
• Wear sunscreen, loose-fitting clothes and a hat.
• If you’re in the mountains or other rural areas, take a cell phone and bear repellent spray.
Area Walks and Hikes
There are countless walking and hiking options around Harrisonburg and Charlottesville.
Dr. Weber’s favorites:
• Enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a hike at Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park.
• Walk around Thomas Jefferson’s historic Grounds at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Panzarella’s favorites:
• Explore Sugar Hollow near Crozet, which has a number of creek crossings and swimming holes.
• Bike, walk or run the 2.3-mile Rivanna Trail along the Rivanna River at Riverview Park in Charlottesville. The paved, fully accessible surface makes this trail ideal for wheelchairs, strollers, runners and anyone with balance problems.