Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing

The following is an excerpt from an article I published in Anthropology & Aging Quarterly (2013) on the illness and recovery experiences and perceptions of physically active middle aged and older adults participating in hiking groups.

 Chloé’s Story

In early October of 2010, R (lead author) arrived in a parking lot at 6:30 am to meet the group of middle-aged and older adult hiking enthusiasts he had been hiking with once a week since August. All the hikes were located in provincial or national parks in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Canada. On this outing, R was introduced to a new hiking group member, Chloé[1]. Her story touched on common themes identified in this ethnographic study and is illustrative of a collective experience. The following is R’s journal entry from that day:

It was a very large group today with 26 people. The large number of people, according to one of the hikers, was due to an optimistic forecast of sunny and warm weather, in contrast to the rain and snow we’ve had for the past couple of weeks. Also, the hike did not have much in the way of elevation gain or distance; therefore, it was not excessively strenuous for the physically compromised and promised contrasting views of the mountains to the west and open prairie to the east.

Chloé was a 58-year-old retired teacher and cancer survivor. A few years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to be as proactive as possible and discovered research suggesting that exercise, specifically heavy aerobic exercise, could prevent cancer from returning. She acted quickly and started to walk every morning for at least one hour, searching out challenging, hilly terrain.

Chloé believed that her active lifestyle contributed to her healing process; the walks eased some of the negative side effects of chemotherapy and improved her overall sense of wellbeing. It also aided in maintaining a healthy body weight vital, she believed, to her recovery from six cancer related surgeries. She did take painkillers after her first surgery – her nurse was a former student and she followed her advice – but suffered “terrible side effects.” She decided not to take the painkillers after her next and consecutive surgeries and discovered that she did not experience a lot of pain and healed quickly. Chloé had met other cancer patients who were inactive and overweight and found that they had difficulties healing. She attributed her lack of pain and quick healing to her vigorous morning walks.

Chloé felt lucky:

“[I]t came at a nice time, if you can have a nice time for cancer [laughs]. My son was in grade 12…. So that six months that I was off, happened to be his last semester at school. He’d be finished at two. He would come home every day and we would cook supper together. So, that was five months of extra time that I’d never ever would’ve had otherwise. He also went for walks with me [laughs].”

Chloé’s story is thick with emotion. She was unwilling to allow her sickness to provide the narrative for her treatment and healing. Chloé discovered that the simple act of walking in a natural setting helped her manage her cancer, bond with her family, and opened her up to future adventures and experiences.

Read the full article >> Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing

[1] This is a pseudonym, as will be the case with all names of individuals and places referenced in this article.

Rodney Steadman, Candace IJ Nykiforuk, and Helen Vallianatos (2013). Active Aging: Hiking, Health, and Healing Anthropology & Aging Quarterly, 34 (2), 87-99

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