- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Excuses not to exercise seem as numerous as yellowing leaves on a sunny fall day. It's too cold. It's too hot. Time is too short. If you ask a hiker, though, there is no time like the present to explore nature trails in such places as Northern Virginia and West Virginia.

October presents not only great weather, but also beautiful, warm fall colors.

"I love hiking, and I love all seasons," says Roslyn Rubin, a hike leader at Capital Hiking Club and an Arlington resident, "but the spring, when the wildflowers bloom, and the fall, with the changing of the colors, are great."

The Capital Hiking Club is one of several groups in the area that arrange weekend hikes. Among others are the Northern Virginia Hiking Club and the Sierra Club's Metropolitan Washington Regional Outings Program.

Aside from providing pretty vistas, hiking also is great exercise, something most Americans are avoiding these days.

Physical inactivity and obesity have increased dramatically in the past decade and account for more than 300,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, according to recent figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Hiking is a terrific form of exercise and should be encouraged," says Dr. Thomas Goldbaum, a cardiologist with a private practice in Chevy Chase.

"Your cardiovascular fitness will be enhanced, and you will increase your muscle tone," Dr. Goldbaum says, "and that puts your metabolism in focus."

Hiking can be strenuous but is commonly less taxing on joints than running. Susan Klein, president of the Capital Hiking Club, used to be a marathon runner but says she traded her running shoes for hiking boots about 10 years ago.

"It is just a more limited time period when you can run," says Ms. Klein, 55. "I think you can hike a lot longer because you're not pounding against the pavement."

Hiking embraces all ages and levels of fitness, she says. Her group has members in their early 20s and in their late 70s. When a new hiker inquires about upcoming hikes, members of Ms. Klein's group, such as hike leaders, try to match the beginner with an easy hike.

Hiking falls somewhere between regular walking and running in cardiovascular intensity; for a professional athlete, hiking is probably more of a pleasurable and aesthetic experience than a physically demanding one, Dr. Goldbaum says.

The group goes on hikes at least once a week, on Sundays. The members charter a bus that takes them from a downtown location in the District to their trail destination and back.

This past Sunday, members went to Harpers Ferry, one of the most popular hiking spots in the area. Its 2,300 acres stretch across parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Getting ready

Hiking doesn't demand the kind of pricey outfits that are required for skiing or windsurfing, but a few pieces of gear can make the walk a lot more comfortable. Good hiking boots that can withstand some of the slippery rocks along the path are essential, Ms. Rubin says.

She recommends going to a specialty store such as REI or Hudson Trail Outfitters, places where salespeople will make sure you are outfitted correctly.

During the longer hikes, which can be up to 13 miles, you want to make sure you are not wearing cotton closest to your skin, she says, because it has a tendency to get very wet, sticky and heavy from perspiration.

She says many hikers prefer clothing made from CoolMax, a type of polyester that dries quickly and breathes well.

Other considerations include carrying enough water and snacks.

"The main focus is not to get dehydrated," Dr. Goldbaum says. "Make sure you carry a lot of water."

Some hikers carry their water in Camelbaks, a type of backpack that holds water and allows the wearer to drink through a tube, keeping hands free to grab onto branches or rocks.

As far as snacks, Dr. Goldbaum says fruits and vegetables are appropriate during the hike, while a heavier meal is best after the hike.

The Capital Hiking Club always provides time for people to have a meal before heading back to the District in the bus. The club also has soda, beer and snack food for sale at the end of the trail.

"It's guilt free, because you've just worked really hard," Ms. Rubin says.

Health benefits

Hiking, like walking, is appropriate for all fitness levels, and Dr. Goldbaum recommends it to beginners, along with a word of caution.

If hikers are overweight or obese, they may want to ask their primary care physicians to assess their fitness level before going out on the trail.

"I don't think the wilderness is a place where you want to test your system," Dr. Goldbaum says.

Heart patients can improve their health by incorporating aerobic exercise, but they have to be careful. They, too, should ask for advice from their doctors before starting any new exercise routine. They might need to bring nitroglycerin tablets, which dilate blood vessels and can ease cardiac pain.

"People also have to be reasonable and listen to their body," Dr. Goldbaum says. "If it's too strenuous, they have to slow down."

His main advice for everyone else is to limber up and stretch before and after the hike to preventmuscle soreness.

Another benefit of hiking is the general well-being that hikers achieve by being outside in nature among friends and acquaintances.

"The thing I like is you get out in a bus, and you're away from your day-to-day activities and errands," Ms. Klein says. "You leave everything behind, and you can't worry about anything. It's very relaxing."

Dr. Goldbaum agrees that there are psychological advantages to getting out in nature and exercising.

"It may sound a little soft and fuzzy, but it's probably true that there are advantages in getting us out of our normal, hurried environment," he says. "[The benefits] have been substantiated by many patients."

Ms. Klein says that when she returns to her Bethesda home on Sunday nights, she is worn out but satisfied and refreshed.

"I sleep like a log, and I feel like I have been on vacation," she says.

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