I walked about 13 km on the Georgian Trail between Thornbury and Meaford, Ontario near the coast of Georgian Bay last year, just as we were heading into winter. The trail was created along an abandoned railway line and is now dedicated to those wishing to hike and bike in the summer, and to snowshoe and cross-country ski in the winter.
I had often heard about the trail but had never taken advantage of it. So, when my daughter came home for a visit, we decided that this was the time.
As a geriatrician and researcher, I have become increasingly interested in what women can do to age well. While no single activity is going to ensure health and well-being with age, evidence suggests that incorporating walking into your routine is a simple and effective way to increase your social contacts and physical activity.
Both infrequent social contact and physical inactivity and have been identified by in the Lancet Commissions report on dementia prevention, intervention and care as modifiable risk factors for dementia. Dementia is a chronic condition that is more common in women than men.
Yet women around the world do less aerobic activity than men. It is estimated that about 32 per cent of women are physically inactive compared to 23 per cent of men, likely due in part to gender-related sociocultural factors. Inactivity increases with age, making it doubly important to encourage older women to be active.
When going for a walk, I personally find it motivating to have a purpose and a destination. In this case, the purpose was time for social connection and the destination was the next town. Though often the enticement for the walk is much simpler: to get some physical activity, some fresh air and to pick up a coffee at a local café.
This particular trail runs through apple orchards, into woods, and crosses a stunning blue clay river gorge. While it took hours to walk the distance, the drive back along the highway was done in minutes, where the things we noticed, talked about, and paid attention to went by in a flash, and were virtually unnoticed.
While committing to a 13km walk takes a bit of planning, it is quite manageable for a healthy individual. On average, people walk a mile in about 20 minutes. The time to walk a distance, of course, depends on the terrain. A walk like this one, which is quite flat, can be done in a few hours. While walking is always interesting, going between towns, provides an added sense of accomplishment.
A long walk also offers the perfect opportunity to talk. My daughter is a graduate student living in the Netherlands, and she’s only home for short visits typically packed with family events, so it is often hard to find the occasion to share quality time.
Walking means uninterrupted time together, to share personal thoughts, discuss meaningful events in our lives, and to experience the joy of casual observations of the landscape. Coupled with the crisp air and the wonderful exhilaration that comes from a long walk, it was without doubt a highlight of our visit together.
The opportunity for one-on-one social contact time that we so seldom have, combined with physical activity, was much needed.
Walking is the perfect prescription for healthy aging. It is a great way to create and reinforce social connections, it’s good for your physical body and contributes to brain health. So, what are you waiting for? Go for a walk.
Dr. Paula Rochon is the founding director of the Women’s Age Lab at Women’s College Hospital and the RTOERO Chair in Geriatric Medicine at the University of Toronto.