Walking: A Stealthy Life-Changer for All Ages

I remember when I was young, my parents would drag me and my brother on incredible hikes. I say drag, because at that age, we thought walking was boring and we were unable to appreciate the awe-inspiring sights all around us. My parents quickly learned that bribery was the only way to keep us going; they would keep a stash of candy bars in their daypack and whenever we reached a point near meltdown, they would fish out a Snickers or some Twizzlers and that would keep us quiet and marching on for a couple more miles.

As I grew older and started to appreciate the splendor of the world around me, hiking became one of my favorite activities. Last year, I hiked the 500-mile Colorado Trail over the course of five weeks, and it was nothing short of a life-changing experience. But you don’t have to walk 500 miles to have walking change your life. Countless studies have shown the benefits of walking, no matter your age, but many more have focused specifically on seniors, and why walking is one of the most important activities that people can do in their later years.

Studies have shown that a walking routine in older age:

If you check out the links, you’ll find scholarly articles (among many more) that support these amazing outcomes. In addition, walking is cheap, accessible, and easy, requiring nothing more than a pair of sneakers.

Despite all these wonderful perks, as a caretaker, it might seem hard to figure out a way to help your loved one develop a walking practice. After all, you might not see them every day and they might have mobility issues that limit their physical activity.

Don’t give up! The 2013 article  “The Healthy Aging Research Network: Resources for Building Capacity for Public Health and Aging Practice” reported that 58% of adults 65 or older have a physical disability. Walking remains an option even if your loved one is part of this majority group. Seniors with disabilities are often less stable, efficient, coordinated, and even in their walking abilities, and although these factors might suggest that a sedentary lifestyle is the safest lifestyle, in fact, physical activity is an essential element in preventing further declines in their health. Supports are available that can make walking a lot easier for seniors with disabilities. These include:

  • Canes: Canes are the best choice for seniors who have some issues with balance and mobility, but are still able to walk on their own. The top hook gives seniors an easy grip, and the straight leg offers support and stability.
  • Walkers: Most models have four legs, with wheels on two. Seniors grasp a padded grip and rest part of their weight on the walker while moving around. Walkers are best for seniors that need significant support or are unable to walk on their own but can still stand and move their limbs without problem.
  • Rollators: These models are upgraded walkers with brakes and stable, smooth wheels on all four legs. Many models have wheels that swivel in all directions for easy maneuvering. Rollators are the best choice for seniors who have acute mobility issues. Wide wheels are best, as they can handle many different surfaces.
  • Walking sticks (Nordic poles): Almost like using two canes, walking sticks provide dual balance and support. Not only do they relieve stress from the lower body and prevent falls, but they also help align the spine and strengthen the core. This is a good choice for seniors who retain some coordination and are still able to walk on their own. Ultimately, choosing between a cane and walking sticks becomes a matter of personal preference.

Walking Clubs

Exercise wasn’t as heavily emphasized in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations as it was in our own. In particular, older women were often told as girls that exercise and sports were for boys, and this mindset can endure throughout life. When you talk to your loved one about beginning a regular walking routine, emphasize that the most significant outcomes of walking regularly are an increased chance of remaining independent, being able to care for yourself, and being able to perform tasks on your own.

According to a study by the University of Georgia, seniors can decrease their risk of disability and increase their likelihood of maintaining independence by 41% through a regular walking program. Independence is a powerful feeling, and its loss can result in depression, anxiety, aggression, and a sense of oneself as a burden. The potential to remain capable has profound physical and mental benefits.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to walk with your loved one every day. Fortunately, there are a variety of options for your loved one to choose between that will encourage them to maintain a walking plan. An additional benefit is that these options will help them meet new people, make new friends, and reap the benefits of increased socialization. Some options to check out together include:

  • Meetup Walking Groups: At Meetup.com you’ll likely find a number of walking clubs specifically geared toward seniors. Also be sure to sign up for Ayuda’s newsletter which promotes walking clubs in different areas. Whether browsing on Meetup.com or Ayuda,  be sure to read the descriptions to find a club that suits your loved one’s needs. You’ll need to make an account for your loved one and once you decide on a group together, you’ll have to request to join and then RSVP for the event of interest. Try to attend the first meeting with your loved one. It will reduce their anxiety, and you can make sure that it’s the right fit for them. If your loved one enjoys the experience, he/she can attend on a weekly basis! If not, you can both keep searching to find a club that’s the perfect match.
  • American Volkssport Association: The AVA is a national nonprofit walking organization that offers clubs and events nationwide. They aim to increase health and fitness through noncompetitive self-paced physical activity. The club is a great opportunity for your loved one to meet other seniors who share the same fitness goals and capabilities. Two trails are normally offered at most AVA walking events: the 10km route and the 5km route. The 5km route (the equivalent of 3.1 miles) could be a great year-long goal to set with your loved one. Visit their website to find AVA activities in your area.
  • Mall Walking Clubs: Check out your local mall to see if there’s a weekly walking club. If not, you can ask them to consider starting a weekly meetup. Mall walking is a great way to avoid some of the difficulties of walking outside like unmarked intersections, a lack of sidewalks, unsafe neighborhoods, and poor lighting. Malls are flat, smooth, enclosed spaces that will allow your loved one to feel secure while still giving them the chance to traverse the levels.It’s also an ideal option for the winter months if your loved is sensitive to the cold.

The following organizations can be called to see whether they have any walking clubs for seniors. If not, you can always suggest that they start a walking club. If you have the time and energy, you can even offer your assistance. To learn more about starting a walking club, check out the advice given by the American Heart Association or Create the Good. In addition, this Walking Program Toolkit for the Workplace has plenty of information on getting started that can be modified to suit your loved one’s needs. Try the following places to inquire about programs for your loved one:

  • Community Centers
  • Local Senior Centers
  • The Parks and Recreation Department
  • Outdoor Clubs
  • Medical Centers
  • Running Store Clubs
  • Health Clubs

Walking Alone

If your loved one prefers to walk alone or is resistant to meeting new people, there are many options to assist them in developing an individual program. New technology and exercise apps can heighten your loved one’s motivation to develop a walking practice. Many are currently available for free, with premium options that include extra features. Here are some great devices and apps to check out:

  • Fitbit, for iPhone, Android, or Windows: This device is the only costly option listed, with models that range from $60 to $250. It’s a physical activity tracker that’s worn around the wrist like a watch. It tracks your heart rate, steps, exercise, sleep stages, and more. The device syncs with your phone and the Fitbit website, so you can constantly track your stats. The device is helpful in informing you about your lifestyle and motivating you to make important changes. It also allows you to set goals, and prompts you toward achieving milestones. There are many options to consider before purchasing a Fitbit, so you’ll have to decide which one best suits your loved one’s needs. It might be a perfect birthday present, and you can help your loved one figure out how to use it and how to view their statistics. I have a Fitbit that I wear constantly. Since I work from home, I’m often seated at my desk for long periods of time, and my Fitbit reminds me to take a break and get outside for a walk.
  • Map My Walk, for iPhone, Android, or Windows: Your loved one can track their route, time, distance, speed, pace, and calories burned through this app. The program syncs with the Map My Walk website, so your loved one can view their stats on a larger screen. One of the wonderful things about Map My Walk is that it has a database full of crowd-sourced routes that your loved one can choose from in their area. Your loved one may be more consistent with their walking practice when they no longer have the hassle of figuring out a suitable loop.
  • Alpine Quest GPS Hiking, for Android: The free version of this app comes with online topographical maps that include street names, landmarks, and buildings. These sorts of details will prevent your loved one from getting lost.
  • Walkmeter, for iPhone: This free app is easy to use and will record your loved one’s walking time, distance, pace, calories burned, and average pace. Your loved one can view their route on the app’s map as they walk and customize the settings to reach different goals. This app is best for motivated seniors who are set on improving their physical condition.
  • World Walking for iPhone and Android: This app is a constant pedometer that records every step you take in a day. It’s a great choice to motivate your loved one to walk throughout the day, even if it’s in short bursts. This app’s perfect for seniors who lack endurance or whose physical limitations prevent them from sustained walking, since it allows them to set goals that can be accomplished over the course of the whole day.

If your loved one is walking alone, make sure that they always bring their cell phone for emergencies. Keep track of their mental and physical condition to ensure that they’re stable enough to set out alone. Ideally, help them download one of the apps listed above onto their phone and record their username and password for yourself. Hopefully, they can establish a walking routine at the same time each day. If not, ask them to shoot you a quick text when they’re heading out and when they return. If you don’t hear from them in a certain amount of time, log into their walking app so that you can determine their location on the GPS. If it seems like they’re having a problem, try to give them a call. If that doesn’t work, drive to their recorded location or call 9-1-1. Tell Emergency Response exactly where the marker places them and meet the EMS team on location. Walking alone can be a mark of independence for older adults and shouldn’t be discouraged. However, precautionary measures should be taken, and it’s important to conduct an honest assessment of your loved one’s abilities to determine an appropriate level of independence for their daily walks.

Audiobooks or music can be entertaining options for older people who prefer to walk alone. Check out Audible, where your loved one can download one book a month to listen to while they explore their area. When they sign up, they’ll receive two free audiobooks, and afterwards they’ll be charged $14.95 per month.

There are a couple of actions that your loved one should complete before heading out on their first walk. You should strongly consider making an appointment with your loved one’s physician. Especially if they’re just starting an exercise regimen, it’s important for a knowledgeable professional to determine whether walking is appropriate for their medical condition and to consult them on any advice about additional ways to improve their health. Consider asking the following questions to ask your loved one’s physician:

  • How long should my loved one be aiming to exercise each day?
  • Are there any types of exercises that my loved one should avoid?
  • Does my loved one have a medical condition that limits or affects their exercise capacity?
  • How can my loved one exercise safely given their current medical condition?
  • What strategies can be used to motivate and support my loved one in developing an exercise routine?
  • What other activities can support a walking regimen to help my loved one become the healthiest version of themselves?

Finding the Right Shoes

After getting the green light from your loved one’s physician, you should guide your loved one through the process of finding a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes. As people age, they experience reduced sensation in their feet, which impairs balance and increases the likelihood of falling. There are many more issues that seniors are often unaware of that can impair their ability to walk. Here are some common problems and potential solutions:

  • Problem: Foot widening and lengthening; Solution: Sturdier support
  • Problem: Foot swelling; Solution: Purchasing two sets of shoes, one for days when the feet are swollen.
  • Problem: Thinning of the natural cushioning on the bottom of the feet; Solution: Additional padding
  • Problem: Impaired eyesight; Solution: New eyeglasses prescription, walking buddy, cane
  • Problem: Vertigo Solution: Stability support such as a walker, cane, or walking poles
  • Problem: Dry skin; Solution: Dry skin foot cream
  • Problem: Bunions, hammertoes, and other foot conditions; Solution: Treatment by a podiatrist
  • Problem: Loss of symmetry of motion and timing between left and right sides; Solution: Evaluation by a doctor
  • Problem: Foot drop that causes toe dragging or a stepping gait; Solution: Walking aids
  • Problem: Short step length that suggests a fear of falling Solution: Work on ways to increase confidence
  • Problem: Muscle imbalances that may cause changes in posture, gait, or balance; Solution: Strength training exercises
  • Problem: Gait changes that can result in placing pressure on different areas of the foot; Solution: Specialized insoles
  • Problem: Bone density loss that raises the risk for fractures; Solution: Address potential nutritional deficiencies
  • Problem: Loss of flexibility that makes it difficult to put on shoes; Solution: Enlisting assistance, shoe-tie aids, or velcro straps
  • Problem: Foot problems due to diabetes, particularly a loss of sensation in the feet; Solution: Walking aids
  • Problem: Balance issues; Solution: Balance exercises like yoga or tai chi

The best way to ensure that your loved one’s shoes are the best choice is to visit a specialty shoe store, often a reputable running store, where a knowledgeable employee can assist your loved one in finding the perfect fit. You should plan on accompanying them to the shoe store later in the day, as this is the time when feet are most swollen, and it will help the salesperson get the best fit for your loved one. In addition, tell your loved one to wear the socks that they prefer to wear when they walk, since this can also make a difference in sizing and comfort. Once you arrive at the store, the employee will measure your loved one’s foot and ask him/her to walk across the store several times to assess their gait. The employee may even ask your loved one to walk on a treadmill for a short period of time, as some stores have computer programs designed to measure different aspects of gait and tread to determine the perfect footwear.

They’ll bring back several pairs of shoes for your loved one to try, and as you examine the shoes and talk to your loved one about how they feel, be sure to look for and ask the salesperson about the following ideal qualities in senior footwear:

  • A simple velcro closure
  • A removable insert so that special orthotic inserts can be substituted, if necessary
  • A rounder toe for more wiggle room
  • Proper arch support for your loved one’s needs
  • A firm upper, the part of the shoe that wraps around the foot, combined with breathable mesh materials
  • Soft padding on the upper
  • A firm yet lightweight midsole unit
  • A wide, low, and dense heel
  • A contoured sole
  • A deep groove pattern on the bottom of the shoe that extends to the very edge
  • Waterproof coating

Finding a shoe with most of these features will provide your loved one with numerous benefits: traction in all conditions, stability, a heightened ability to absorb and disperse shock and maintain balance, and a reduction in pain. Don’t be surprised if your loved one ends up with a running shoe rather than a walking shoe. Often, these types of shoes are better designed to provide extra cushion for the feet and joints. Ask the employee to adjust the laces so that they’re not too tight in the front. You might have the option to customize your loved one’s insoles in the store and it may be advised by the salesperson. If your loved one has any medical conditions that particularly affect their gait, the salesperson may advise you to see a podiatrist for the necessary inserts. In purchasing a shoe, the three things you want to keep in mind are durability, customizability, and cost. Once you and your loved one find a shoe that fulfills all these features, you’re good to go!

Ready to Walk?

So now it’s the day of your first walk together, and you want to make sure that your loved one enjoys the experience. How can you optimize your time? First, look up the weather and make sure that you and your loved one are dressed comfortably for the conditions. Cotton clothes absorb moisture and dry slowly, making you cold, wet, and prone to chafing. Instead, both of you should opt for synthetic wicking fabricsthat remove sweat from the skin. Light-colored fabrics are best, since they reflect sunlight, make it easy for drivers to see you, and keep you cool. In the winter months, add two extra layers of clothing: a thermal midlayer made of microfleece and an outer coat that insulates against the cold, protects against the wind, and repels moisture while allowing for breathability. Jackets with hoods are ideal, especially in windy and rainy weather that can be ill-suited for umbrellas.

Unless it’s completely overcast or rainy, apply sunscreen. You can often get burnt even in partly cloudy conditions. Both you and your loved one should consider wearing wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses to keep your faces protected.

It’s best to determine a route to walk with your loved in advance. In the future, you can be more flexible in your outings, but for your first walk, ensure that the route is uniformly paved with sidewalks; has safe, well-marked road crossings; has few barriers; and has no strenuous descents and ascents. Start out slowly, pointing out pretty things that you see along the way and talking of happy memories and exciting things in the future. Take your cues from your loved one and take a break when needed. An easy way to determine whether your pace is appropriate for your loved one is the “talk test”. If your loved one can still carry on a conversation, then that’s a good tempo. If your loved one is panting and struggling to answer your questions, ease up on the pace and offer them a sip of water.

Aim to drink about a cup of water every fifteen minutes and encourage your loved one to do the same. As soon as you return to your starting location, fill up two glasses of water and set a good example by drinking your whole glass. Dehydration, as noted in my previous article, “A Guide to Healthy Eating for Seniors,” can be a serious problem in older age and needs to be given special attention when exercising.

If your loved one has a way to track their steps, encourage them to keep a steps journal. Some programs will document your loved one’s goals and progress for them, but they can always simply log their daily steps by hand in a notebook on their bedside table. A good goal for your loved one to start with is 2,000-4,000 steps a day, depending on their physical and medical condition. As your loved one continues their walking regimen, they can gradually increase their daily count to reach an eventual goal of 10,000 steps a day.

Former endurance athlete and health motivator Mark Sisson said, “Walking helps make space, clear the air, and moderate our worst moods - allowing us to breathe again.”

Inspire your loved one to take up a walking routine by joining them in the endeavor. Both of you will experience enormous mental and physical benefits from the simple act of walking. Walking is inclusive to all ages, making it a multi-generation activity. (But consider stashing a candy bar in your pocket for the grandkids, and don’t you dare steal it for yourself.) Throughout history, walking has brought people together to promote awareness, advocate for civil rights, human rights, environmental rights, and political rights, and promote a variety of social causes.

Walking with your loved one, in a group, or by yourself can provide unique but equally profound insights into the world around you. Just as your loved one needs the physical activity to keep their body strong in old age, don’t forget to take care of yourself! Being a caretaker is hard, and catching a breath of fresh air and the space to reflect can be an important opportunity to reset. Motivate your loved one to practice self-care by establishing and sticking to your own routine. Often the best way to inspire someone else is to set a good example. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and walk!