First Day Hikes a growing way to celebrate the season
These are parades of a different kind.
The usual New Year's Day version is fun and festive, if you like noise and crowds and giant balloons and standing in one place for a long period of time. And some do.
But others — me, and maybe you — prefer something else.
Serenity, if not absolute silence. A testing of muscles, with the level of intensity our call. A bit of local color and knowledge, perhaps.
And we are not alone.
Our parades — First Day Hikes — are growing in popularity. All across the country, more and more people are getting outside on the first day of the year and participating in official, free, guided events.
Massachusetts held the first "First Day" hike more than 20 years ago. It was then, as now, an attempt to get people outdoors and enjoying our shared natural resources.
The movement has since spread, so that in 2019 state parks and other public lands in all 50 states will host free walks.
Each is led by a paid or volunteer guide knowledgeable about their local area.
"The distance and rigor vary from park to park, but all hikes aim to create a fun experience for the whole family," according to America's State Parks. "People are invited to savor the beauty of the state park's natural resources with the comfort of an experienced guide so they may be inspired to take advantage of these local treasures throughout the year."
Last year nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year by collectively hiking more than 133,000 miles throughout the country on the guided hikes.
There are all manner of hikes to choose from. Some focus on wildlife, others history like the experience of Civilian Conservation Corps crews, some natural wonders like fossils, still others culture and scenery.
Many are pet friendly. Some offer access to places typically off limits.
New this year, in an attempt to create a sense of community, parks are giving away "First Day Hikes" and "I hiked" stickers, as long as supplies last.
There are longer-term benefits to be had, though.
Walking — even moderately strolling along a groomed path — promotes cardiovascular health. So going on a First Day hike following it up with more walks will leave you feeling better.
And not just physically either. Getting outside and exploring is good for mental health, too.
"A number of small studies hint that spending time in green space — nature preserves, woodlands, and even urban parks — may ease people's stress levels," reads a story from Harvard Medical School. "Given the growing consensus that stress contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease risk, anything you can do to mitigate stress is likely helpful."
"There's a real sense of peace and composure you get from being outside and away from everything," agreed Aaron L. Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
So the question is not whether to hike, or even when. There are opportunities out there, all over all the time.
It's just a matter of where to go.
Adventure awaits. Pick a trail and get moving, as parade season is upon us.
First Day Hikes and New Year's resolutions
First Day Hikes can be the start of something bigger.
Lots of people want to be more active, get in shape and lose some weight. That's usually the first or second most-common resolution made around New Year's, rivaled only by the commitment to save more money.
Relatively few follow through, though. According to a University of Scranton study, only 19 percent of people stuck to their resolution for as long as two years.
There are some thing you can do to increase the odds you'll be a long-term, healthy, in-shape hiker, though.
- Start small. According to the American Psychological Association, committing to exercising three or four days a week to start is more reasonable than seven. So plan to hike a couple of times a week, but not every day.
- Stay local. Hikes in far-away exotic locations are thrilling. But if the goal is to get out a lot, don't overlook local community and county parks. Save the wilder places for weekends and hike where you can, when you can.
- Take a friend. Support is important for any planned change in behavior. Plus, there are benefits to sharing what you love. Studies show that mentoring people new to the outdoors reinvigorates the mentor, too.
- Develop a plan. What most interests you outdoors? The chance to see wildlife? Scenic overlooks? Historical sites? Pick hikes that cater to your interest and develop a schedule for seeing them.
- Be forgiving. Everyone who makes a New Year's resolution stumbles somewhere along the way. "Perfection is unattainable," said the Psychological Association. So if you bail on a hike because the weather's lousy, that's OK. Just go another day.