A stroll in the woods as short as 15 minutes leads to physiological changes such as improved heart and mental health

Written By: Melinda M. Lavine | Duluth News Tribune

One of the things Trista Vucetich Anderson likes about living in Duluth is access to hiking.

It doesn’t have to take all day, she said, and you can get out for 30 minutes on a lunch break.

Hiking is part of her exercise regime. The fitness/wellness coordinator at the University of Minnesota Duluth teaches yoga, pilates, spin, strength-training, and she works with the men’s hockey and

She calls herself “somewhat of a gym rat,” but there’s something about getting outside in the fresh air. She hikes regularly with her kids more often now that she’s a mom, and hiking always makes her feel better physically, mentally and emotionally, she said.

Walking trails outdoors gets blood flowing through all the limbs, and it’s good for the lower body, quadriceps, hamstrings, calf muscles. Your core is constantly challenged when the terrain changes or you have to go over a log or under a branch, Anderson said.

Walking on uneven ground activates your stabilizing muscles, the lateral hip abductors and glutes, said Ann Farley, physical therapist at Orthopaedic Associates of Duluth.

And any prolonged endurance activity, hiking, running, biking, is beneficial to your cardiovascular system and overall mental health, she said.

Uphill hiking also reduces triglyceride levels, a heart-problem risk factor; and downhill hiking is almost twice as effective at improving glucose tolerance and removing blood sugars. Both decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 10 percent, according to a Harvard Health Publishing article.

Because there is more pressure on your joints coming down a slope, Anderson’s tip is to distribute your weight as if you were sitting, and to walk downward more laterally.

And Anderson likes that hiking is a lower impact exercise because of her injuries: a foot surgery, hip and sacroiliac joint issues. She doesn’t run because it would take her longer to rehab and recover, she said. But hiking suits her well.

“On steeper hikes, I get my heart rate up and I get my sweat on and I feel like I have done the equivalent of a run,” she said.

Her go-to spots are Bagley, Hartley, Lester, Chester Bowl, and the trails are for everyone. If you can walk, you can hike, and hiking doesn’t have to mean up a mountain. “Hiking is going in nature and walking,” Anderson said.

And the nature part in itself is a health-aiding factor.

A stroll in the woods as short as 15 minutes leads to physiological changes.

In a Chiba University study, 84 subjects walked in seven different forests. The results: a 16 percent decrease in cortisol, our stress hormone; a 4 percent drop in heart rate; and a 2 percent drop in blood pressure.

Lead researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki said our senses are built to interpret information about streams, plants, trees, not city streets, stoplights and smartphones.

Petra Penicova said being in nature has whole-health benefits.

She leads Duluthian Forest Bathing, and the practice of forest therapy, aka Japanese Shinrin-yoku, is a practicum of walking in and immersing yourself in nature with all the senses. Walks are guided, and each has several invitations to a mindfulness activity on the trail.

It’s like yoga in that it encourages some movement, reflection and it restores balance.

Her forest therapy practice and being outdoors in general helps on a personal level.

“I feel overwhelmed with social media, with all the things I should do as a mom, as a wife, as a friend, as a person in the city, as an activist,” she said. But after walking in the woods, Penicova said she feels much more creative, and there’s more headspace to do what’s next.

We’re often in flight mode, she said. And while the body is self-healing, we have to give it the room to do that. “Nature is healing; people did know it; we just forget it.”

“In America, hiking is part of our national heritage,” said Norm Radtke. “Walt Whitman was a hiker. Lewis and Clark. Everybody thinks they paddled those boats all the way up the Missouri River. They hiked up the shoreline, as well,” he said.

The physical therapist at Lake Superior Physical Therapy used to hike up through the woods to get to school. As an adult, he has hiked the Superior shore, and he used to be an endurance athlete.

Some things to watch for are twisted ankles, knees, overstrained hips, dehydration, he said. There are run-ins with animals, insects to consider when headed out.

Anderson was on a trail in Montana solo when she rolled her ankle. She was 3 miles out, this was pre-cellphone, and she “cried the whole way back to the car.”

There were some torn ligaments, but she’s still hiking today.

She suggested to make sure you’re hydrated before you go — and to bring water.

Theoretically, any age group can hike. Just pick a trail that’s at a level of difficulty appropriate for your experience and physical level. And if you want to add distance or intensity, Farley suggested a 10 percent increase to adequately build muscles.

Duluth’s wet weather can make for muddy trails and an increased fall risk, so sturdy, supportive shoes are helpful, she said.

Some people use trekking poles to take pressure off the joints and help with balance, added Rystad.

Dress appropriately for the condition. Wear sunscreen and bug spray, pack water, snacks, a map, cellphone. Tuck pants in and check for ticks afterward.

Go with a friend when you’re first starting out, so you have support just in case.

It can be inherently dangerous, said Denny Caneff.

There can be breaks, scrapes or bruises. But it’s easy, accessible and “you don’t need to have a lot of athletic skill,” he added.

Caneff, 65, has two sections left to hike of the 300-plus-mile Superior Hiking Trail. And he finds that his experience on the trails is split.

Half the time, he’s present, the other half, he’s assessing the trail’s condition — he’s the executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association.

Caneff called hiking in Duluth “surprisingly wild,” and this is an age-old activity that we’ve been doing since we were upright.

As to its healthful benefits, he said: “There’s not a more contemplative place to sit than on a rock, near the river, where the sound is loud enough to white-noise everything out.”