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Seniors get social boost from walking clubs

The benefits of walking are huge; not just physical but socially too.

We've all heard about the physical health benefits of going for regular walks, with studies linking brisk walking to a decreased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension; not to mention stronger leg muscles.

But longtime Alberta walking enthusiasts say the social benefits can also be key for participants of walking groups, particularly for seniors. And experts say people who socialize tend to have better health than loners.

"The social aspect is huge," said Jane Braathen of Calgary, who helps organize regular walks for people 55 and older through the FLC Seniors Outdoor Club. "There's a real connection."

Braathen says walkers get broken into two groups, one which walks for about an hour, another about an hour and a half. And one group walks hilly terrain while the other stays on level ground.

On one recent walk, about 50 participated in the two groups, some in their 90s who have been walking with the club for years. And to get people to mix, FLC assigns walking partners on the treks.

"Walking with someone is very important," said Braathen. "One of the ladies said she'd think of it like being at a cocktail party; you try to circulate. In that way it's welcoming for new people too. They are included."

FLC walkers often go for coffee afterwards, usually at a local McDonald's--more of that important social piece of the puzzle.

Susanne Forbrich is president of the non-profit St. Albert Trekkers, formed in 1988 and one of seven groups across the province affiliated with the Volkssport Association of Alberta (a walking organization connected internationally). The St. Albert group, which organizes walks once a week in the St. Albert/north Edmonton region, is the biggest in the province, with membership of about 130 and a target audience of people 50 and older.

"Some of our best walkers are over 80," said Forbrich. "It's unbelievable. They leave me in the dust and I'm not even 65 yet. It's so motivating to see people who are older remaining fit."

Like the FLC Seniors group, the Trekkers charge a nominal fee to participants, which covers basic costs like insurance. Some walk solo, some with spouses or friends, but the group's "fun, fitness and friendship" slogan reflects the importance of socialization as a big motivating factor, said Forbrich.

"For most of the people who are walking with us, it's the social aspect," she said. "Just catching up, and developing new friendships."

She added: "Some members join because they have recently lost a spouse. After the grieving process tones down a bit, either their kids encourage them to do it or they know someone who has taken part in the walks."

Retiree David Hall used to be an avid golfer until he started having back troubles stemming from swinging the golf club. As an alternative exercise, he joined the Northern Lights Walking Club about 15 years ago and is now head of the group, which organizes two walks a week, mostly for seniors, in south Edmonton and Leduc, Wetaskiwin, Camrose and Millet. Some members even join bigger walking events in the U.S. and abroad.

"Now I've got friends in Tennessee and Alabama, California and Nova Scotia," Hall said, pointing to an Alabama couple that will join him and a friend on a Panama Canal cruise this winter. "It built a whole new friendship network of people who like fresh air and exercise."

Hall met Ryan Beamer from Colorado 10 years ago at a walk in Langley, B.C. and they have become good pals, meeting up for walks almost every year in Edmonton or places like Cypress Hills, San Antonio, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona.

Coincidentally, Hall says he and Beamer share something else besides a love for walking. They are both 72 years old and their birthdays are only a few days apart.

"We call ourselves twins because we're both September babies," he said with a chuckle.