Considering the many health benefits of hiking and Nordic walking for people with Parkinson’s, the next time someone tells you to “take a hike,” you should thank them for the suggestion!

Walking is like any other life necessity such as eating or sleeping. It’s fun to do alone, and it’s also fun to do with a companion.

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and if you’re just tuning in, we’re on week three of our Parkinson’s Awareness Month walking challenge.

For people with Parkinson’s, walking every day can drastically improve your ability to live an independent and fulfilling life. Research has found that just 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, while improving gait, balance, tremor and flexibility.

During the first week of our Parkinson’s Awareness Month walking challenge, we encouraged you to give walking a try. We talked about the benefits of walking for people with Parkinson’s based on proven clinical research and offered tips for tackling the treadmill safely.

Then, last week, we challenged you to step outside to get your steps and experience the mental and physical health benefits of walking outdoors.

When you walk outside, you’re not just experiencing a change in temperature. You’re experiencing subtle changes in the terrain that test your balance and cognition, such as walking on uneven surfaces and navigating turns.

For week three, we hope you’ll level up your outdoor walking game and consider hiking or Nordic walking—with a buddy in tow.

Benefits of hiking for Parkinson’s

Hiking is good for anyone’s health, regardless if they have Parkinson’s disease.

Depending on the length and intensity of the trail, and the steepness of your incline, you’re in for a powerful cardio workout that can lower your risk of heart disease and improve your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, while filling your lungs with fresh, clean air.

Since hiking is a weight-bearing exercise, it improves bone density and strengthens your core, glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. It’s one of those “one-stop-shop workouts that build multiple components of fitness (cardio and strengthening) simultaneously, and therefore burns calories like they’re going out of style.

Adding to the fact that you’re taking in the mesmerizing sounds of wildlife and some of the most scenic views Mother Earth has to offer—be it forests, mountains, deserts, waterfalls, rivers or creeks—hiking nourishes the mind, body and soul in ways no other workout can.

To burn even more calories and to engage the upper body further, consider hiking with trekking poles. These are basically ski poles with handles. They keep you from falling when going uphill or downhill, or crossing streams, and they also help take some of the load off the joints.

While some people prefer hiking with one pole, it’s safer for people with Parkinson’s to have two because using only one pole on one side of the body will reinforce balance issues. Using two poles helps strengthen the upper body muscles and achieve both spinal rotation and elongation, thus improving a stooped posture.

Going on a hike? Put these in your backpack

• First aid kit. Safety comes first. You need to have essential medical supplies available in case of an injury. Prepackaged kits contain most of what you need at a reasonable price. And they’re small and light enough to fit in a backpack.
• Water and more water. Bringing a water bottle is a given for any hiking excursion. Two bottles might be better if you have Parkinson’s. You need the extra H2O to tackle common PD symptoms like dehydration and hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating.)
• Snacks. You can’t exactly make a pitstop at the supermarket when you’re in the middle of the wilderness. Pack something light and healthy (energy bars, trail mix, fruit and veggies, etc.) that will give your body the fuel to keep going without feeling sluggish.
• Portable cell phone power bank. You know that feeling of panic when your phone’s battery dies? That is amplified by 1,000 percent when we’re out of civilization’s reach. Make sure you have an extra battery pack.
• Compass and a map. You can’t always rely on your phone having service when you’re on hike. No service means no Google Maps. Think back to your bygone days of Cub Scouts and have a compass and trail map as backup.

Benefits of Nordic walking for Parkinson’s

Nordic walking amplifies the movement of ordinary walking in order to produce gains in speed. This high-intensity exercise has even more cardio or aerobic activity than hiking, but it can still be carried out on a variety of surfaces and terrains by anyone who can walk regardless of age or fitness level.

Multiple studies conducted around the world have shown that people with Parkinson’s who participated in Nordic walking programs saw improvements in their gait, balance, posture, flexibility and mood.

Similar to hiking with trekking poles, Nordic walking requires two specially designed, hand-held walking poles that act as levers to give you a springy, lengthened stride. But unlike normal hiking sticks that you stab ahead of you as you walk, you push back on Nordic walking poles, rotating your shoulders and hips, and propelling your body forward.

Once you push your body past the pole, you must let go of the pole grip to get the pole further back behind the body and for the pole to become an extension of the arm. There are plenty of online tutorials you can watch that will paint a clearer picture.

Nordic walking takes some getting used to. But once you nail down the technique, it can improve fitness in the same way that running does—only it’s easier on the ankles, knees and hips and therefore has a lower impact on the joints.

By Kathryn Jones