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Hiking and summiting Mt Kenya for health

 Ruth Kinyua and her husband Kinyua Gachoki during a recent hike at Mt Kenya National Park. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

To many vacationers, adventurous activities such as zip lining, snorkeling, water rafting, bungee jumping and other adrenaline-driving sports are no activities for the faint-hearted. These extreme sports are not for those advanced in years either - at least not for those aged 55 years and above.

To many, this group of adventure lovers can only indulge in experiences such as walking, yoga, or meditation sessions - not strenuous and extreme sports.

However, trends are changing and more people are adopting different fitness regimes, with older persons engaging in activities that are viewed as being of health benefits. One such activity that has gained traction is going for walks on rough terrains and scaling hills and mountains for recreation and overall health benefits.

"Adventure with health benefits is the new buzzword for travellers and vacationers as far as lifestyle habits are concerned, and with this new approach there is no age barrier to try out some of the activities," says Ruth Kinyua who though in her late fifties has "hiking and scaling mountains in her adventure bucket list.

Adventure for wellness

Ruth's wellness group comprises 21 men and women majority in their late fifties, and early 60s. The group's focus is to "hike for health", which they have been doing for the last six years. The group's ideology is that wellness is more than being free from illness. According to Ruth's husband Kinyua Gachoki, wellness is an active, continuous process of becoming self-aware. It means making choices towards a healthy and fulfilling life that encompasses all aspects of the human being from physical, mental, and social.

When I catch up with Ruth on a Tuesday morning, she and her group have just completed one seven-day expedition of summiting Mt Kenya. For the majority of the twenty-one-member group, this is their second time to do so, while for the minority, it is the first time. Still, for others, it is a second attempt after failing to summit Batian Peak on the first attempt.

Before embarking on the expedition, the group had its third session of a one-day hike through the famous Ngong seven hills in preparation for the gruesome hike and trek of summiting Mt Kenya's Batian Peak.

Kinyua says walking, hiking, and summiting for health purposes is most rewarding in attaining goals such as keeping fit, fighting non-communicable diseases at bay, or managing them, while at the same time creating buzz around the lifestyle at retirement. Some of the highlights of doing these adventurous activities bring great joy, confidence, and a feeling of great achievement when for example you succeed in summiting the peaks of Mt Kenya.

"I remember being excited at the prospects of summiting Africa's second highest mountain in my fifties, something I thought was unachievable, yet, here I was going through months of preparation and finally making it at my first attempt," says Ruth. That was four years ago. Since then, she and her fellow friends have formed a group and at least four times a year, they have included hiking, trekking, and summiting mountains, which has since become a health agenda.

Beyond these original goals, the group has included fundraising for noble causes in their adventurous activities, in line with a focus on health. This particular hike and Mt Kenya climbing was dedicated to raising funds for supporting an initiative by the group to raise awareness on value addition to the education of the hard-to-hear (deaf) in Kajiado County through the incorporation of the Audio Verbal Therapy (AVT) alongside the formal sign language education system of learning.

Hiking for health

To the couple and their group members, unlike walking which entails everyday movement within shorter distances, hiking is an extensive and vigorous walk, usually surrounded by nature for recreational purposes.

 Ruth Kinyua and her husband Kinyua Gachoki during a recent hike at Mt Kenya National Park. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

From the sedate hill walks (such as Ngong's seven hills) to the snow-capped peak of Mt Kenya to high altitude alpine slopes, one is never short of a place to hike as the country is blessed with superb terrain where hikers, trekkers, both beginners and experienced ones, can have an unforgettable experience.

Kinyua says when it comes to gains, there are many reasons why one should embrace hiking activities as a form of wellness. Apart from being a fun activity that one can engage in, hiking, he says, hiking is an excellent workout for the body, especially as one advances in age.

"The fact that you stop to catch your breath as you climb the sometimes ragged terrain- the hills only too late on nurse sore calf muscles after the whole affair is enough evidence that the activity is a serious health affair" explains Kinyua.

For the 21-member group, an adventure for health benefits has become routine, where factors such as the speed at which you hike, however, the weight of your pack, or the type of terrain can influence health benefits, such as how much and how fast calories one can burn. A moderate hike, says Kinyua, can have a participant burn between 300 to 400 calories per hour.

Other benefits

During the hiking activities, the group focuses on boosting their mental health. This comes from walking through serene locations that are surrounded by natural settings - trees, rivers, and other natural resources. Sometimes, the only audible sounds and melodies are the chirping of birds and crickets. "This experience is one of a lifetime that is bound to stimulate all your senses as you take in deep breaths of fresh air," reminisces Ruth of the just concluded hiking session of "conquering" Mt Kenya a second time.

Nature, she says, has a calming effect that makes one forget the stresses of life. Through hiking, also, one can build self-esteem as walking along the trail gives one time for reflection and meditation. Hiking too affords hikers temporary to forget the stresses of daily routines to rejuvenate and re-energise.

According to health experts, the fact that during walking and hiking sessions the body produces vitamin D, especially while walking under the sun. This is a positive impact through the activation of the hormones responsible for safeguarding from mental illnesses such as depression.

Ruth says the group's hiking adventure provides wellness bonding sessions by providing an opportunity for members to reconnect, sometimes with their spouse, family, friends, and colleagues. This helps in maintaining meaningful relationships in a dynamic and fast-paced world.

"Hiking offers us space and time to talk and iron out differences, as we talk about issues that we may otherwise fail to address during our normal daily routines," says Kinyua.

The Seven-day journey to summiting Africa's highest roof started with one-day hiking at Ngong Hills as part of acclamation training, followed by a day trip to the Sirimoni Gate at the base of Mt Kenya. This was followed by a gruesome four-day trek, which culminated in the group achieving the goal of conquering the Batian peak.

Only one three out of the 21-member group did not make it to this once-in-a-lifetime achievement. The good news is that they will have a chance to try another time during the slated 2024 annual Mt Kenya hiking by the group. In between, there are other scheduled hiking to various places within the country.

The highlight of the group's health-packed adventure hike will be summiting Africa's highest mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro which is slated for October this year.

As my session ends, I have three take-away challenges - one to conquer Ngong's seven hills, which are a stone's throw away from where I live, a beginning point for my acclimatisation training to do a second attempt to summit Mt Kenya. The last time I tried in 2022, I only managed to go up to Lake Ellis. My greatest achievement would be to conquer Mt Kilimanjaro, nature's wonder that I have only "conquered" through binoculars.

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