Hikers Seek Health Benefits and Camaraderie in Fast-Paced Walks

By Charlotte Ward, Forest Preserve Visitor

It’s a crisp April morning and I am powerwalking through the woods, spotting signs of nature awakening.

I’ve joined 13 walkers for the first “Forest Fitness Walk” of the season, feeling joyful amid the sprouting spring buds, peeping petals of early flowers and the sweet lullaby of migrating birds.

The health benefits of walking are well publicized but a recent study from Stanford University also reveals that walking through nature physically changes the way blood flows to the brain. Those who experience it feel more attentive and happier.

Forest Fitness Walk_1

As we make our way on a beautiful 3.5-mile stroll through Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve in Oak Brook, it is easy to understand why.

“It feels good to be outdoors,” comments Pam Mattson who signed up for the walk with her husband Ron. “We’re recently retired and love to get out walking.”

Our trek is led by Fullersburg Woods Naturalist Dave Andrusyk, who has been pounding the preserve trails with these popular walks for the past six years.

“Most folks come to keep moving,” Andrusyk says. “It’s about getting out and enjoying the health benefits of exercise and fresh air. A lot of people are nervous about the distance, but we start the season with a low mile walk and work our way up. When we get to the five-mile walks I encourage people to bring water and snacks. By June 13, we’ll be gearing up for a 10-mile that will be a half-day walk lasting about 3.5 hours.”

Forest Fitness Walk 3

Today he is leading us past the Graue Mill and Museum where we see a Forest Preserve District truck. “If anyone’s tired, get in the back!” Ron Mattson quips.

There are no takers, and we continue to amble past daffodils and snowdrops. Blue jays and red-winged blackbirds are observing our progress from the branches of oaks, sycamores and cottonwoods.

By now we’re on the outer loop of Fullersburg’s multipurpose trail and walking along Salt Creek. There’s a distinctive tapping from up above, and Andrusyk directs our gaze to a downy woodpecker.

Our guide continues to point out wildlife and sights of interest, such as a limestone shelter dating back to the 1930s when a Civilian Conservation Corps camp existed at the site.

Sunlight reflects off Salt Creek, and our group has split into small huddles of walkers who all chat animatedly. “The group atmosphere helps to give motivation for the walks,” says Andrusyk. “We walk faster than a normal pace to get good exercise, and people often say they can’t believe how time has flown by. They get so engrossed talking, they don’t realize how far they have walked.”

Walker Joyce Ruchti says she has been attending the walks for three years. “I just love them,” she says. “I don’t want to walk by myself. I like that there are lots of other people on the walks. I’ve made good friends.”

As we cross over the water to join the inner-looped trail, we arrive at a secluded point of an island. Andrusyk tells us to keep a lookout for wood ducks, shy creatures that like to nest in the cavities of the trees. “Their call sounds like someone zipping up a coat,” he says.

Forest Fitness Walk

“Forest Fitness Walks” take place Monday mornings through June 13 at different forest preserves. Nature lovers are rewarded with new scenery each week and a chance to spot wildlife such as birds, deer, squirrels, muskrats and coyotes.

“At Meachan Grove on May 2 there’s a giant field of large-flowered trillium, a native wildflower that deer really like to eat, and at Greene Valley on May 16 there’s a shrubby woodland savanna where deer hang out.”

Arriving back at the Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center, it feels good to know that at 9:30 a.m. on Monday we have already walked 3.5 miles and burned around 300 calories.

Mary Lou Fyrwald has been tracking her progress via a smartphone app. “I’ve taken 7,482 steps,” she says jubilantly.

We all wander off feeling rather virtuous.

Source: Nature Changes Your Brain,
Pam and Ron Mattson 
Mary Lou Fyrwald
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