Traveling in the Golden Years

Getting in shape before a trip can help prevent travel-related injuries.

Last summer, Jim and Debbie Patera of Bethesda traveled to Greece with their adult children and two grandchildren. While sharing the splendor of the Acropolis with their offspring was one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives, the couple, both 75, had considered canceling their long-planned trip because they felt the stair-climbing and suitcase lugging that goes with international travel would be overwhelming.

“We started working with a personal trainer about four months before our trip,” said Debbie Patera. “We worked on improving our balance and stamina, and that made a huge difference for us. We still got tired at times, but not to a point where it ruined the trip for our grandchildren.”

From walking down cobblestone streets to lifting luggage into an overhead bin, the physical demands of international travel can come with a risk of injury for those who are not in shape. While those travelers over the age of 65 might run a higher risk, fitness preparation before a trip is a key to prevention, says personal trainer Christian Elliot of TRUE Whole Human.

Building stamina can make travel more enjoyable and running out of energy can put a damper on a trip, particularly for those who, like the Pateras, take multi-generational trips.

“The more lead time they have the better, but even a period of two weeks is enough to see some positive changes in ability,” said Elliot. “The simplest activity anyone can engage in with the most far-reaching benefits is walking everyday. Depending on ability level, increase the time spent walking by 5-15 minutes each week until walking for an hour without a break is no problem.”

Paying attention to your feet and ankles can help prevent unpleasant injuries that can ruin a trip, advises Margaret Hennessy, who leads international Christian missions trips. “Make sure that you have good, supportive shoes if your trip will include a significant amount of walking,” she said. “Don’t skimp on shoes, buy the best that you can afford and wear them to break them in before your trip so that you don’t get blisters. Also make sure that your ankles are in good shape.”

Take time to improve balance, advises Elliot. “ Do some one-legged exercises,” he said. “Hold on to something for balance until you don't need to use it. For an extra challenge, trying doing it on an unstable surface. As your confidence grows, so will the enjoyment of your vacation. Especially if your vacation involves being on a boat.”

Planning each part of a vacation and familiarizing oneself with the activities that each will entail can avoid unpleasant surprises.

“Don’t assume that because you’re active in your everyday life, that you’ll be fine when you travel,” said Joan Foley, a personal trainer in Fairfax, Va. “Walking around your neighborhood for exercise is different from climbing narrow stairs or walking on rocky terrain at a high altitude. Take the time to do research to determine the physical elements of the trip and train for those conditions.”

Practice getting up and down off the floor 10 times from a seated or lying position, advises Elliot. “As we age, we tend to neglect this simple motion, and it's use it or lose it,” he said. “Even better, try the classic cross-legged, stand test. If you can't do that from the floor, and most people can't, sit on a surface where you can do it, and as it gets easier with time, slowly use a lower and lower starting surface until doing it from the floor is possible.”

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