Every time I lace up my sneakers and hit the trails for a marathon run through Pittsburgh’s emerald parks (okay, by marathon I actually mean about 3.5 miles…on a good day) I’m quickly brought back to April 2010. This was the month that not only catapulted me into the reality of mortality, but also altered my overall worldview of living a healthy, meaningful life. I sat in a hospital waiting room trying to unsuccessfully distract my mom as we waited for the surgeon to deliver the news of how my dad’s open heart surgery had gone. A day earlier he had gone in for a routine angioplasty, or at least I’m told they’re routine, and the next thing we knew they were loading him into an ambulance for emergency quadruple coronary bypass surgery at another hospital. The man I once thought to be invincible became more human than ever. That wasn’t a stranger on that stretcher. It was my dad. The day of the surgery was one of those odd days where time stood still while racing by all at the same time. We saw doctor’s come in and out speaking with other families in the waiting room and even overheard one doctor tell a family their loved had just had a successful quintuple bypass surgery. We didn’t even know that was possible! We held our breath as the heart surgeon walked toward us removing his surgical mask. My dad, being the stubborn old man that he is, really made the surgeons work for their dinner that day by ending up with sextuple coronary bypass surgery. He always did have to one-up everyone else. It turns out he had suffered multiple minor heart attacks throughout the year and didn’t know it, but the surgery was successful.
Three months after his surgery, I moved to Pittsburgh. I used this new beginning as a wake-up call. Between my dad’s surgery and my own heart murmur diagnosis in junior high, it was time to stop the legacy of unhealthy heart disease that ran rampant in my family. Instead of spending my free time watching reruns of Twin Peaks on Netflix, I hit the trails. I was definitely nervous as I started my way down Braddock Trail in Frick Park for the first time, but knowing my strong aversion to gyms and having learned the hard way that treadmills take at least some coordination, I knew I had to do something to keep my heart healthy.
Healthy weight management is the obvious benefit to any physical activity. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that 60-70% of Americans are obese, leading to a higher risk of heart disease and other medical issues. According to the AHA, chronic stress may also contribute to heart disease as it can weaken artery walls and increase blood pressure. With heart disease consistently ranking as the number one killer in this county, it’s pertinent that people get out and start moving. Recently, there has been an onset of studies showing the benefits of exercising outdoors versus exercising indoors. A 2011 study performed at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom showed that participants who exercise outside experienced a greater positive influence in overall mood and reduction of stress. The participants were also more likely to repeat the activity and form a regular exercise routine. Additionally, exercising outdoors increases your intake of Vitamin D (everything in moderation of course so wear your sunscreen!), which assists in bone growth and calcium absorption.
A key take-away for me is the effectiveness of habit formation when exercising outside. Consistency is not my strong point so I had to make sure to pick an exercise that was engaging and kept me coming back. Seriously, what can be more engaging than feeding your senses through the 561 acres of winding trails in Frick Park? The trails not only boast a variety of wildlife and a majestic canopy of trees, but the changes in elevation also allow you to cater your workout to your skill level or just what you’re in the mood for that day. Since I’m not exactly the strongest runner, yet, I’ve created a confidence-boosting run for myself on days that I need a quick shot of self-assurance. It’s about a two-mile downhill run starting in Blue Slide Playground, meandering down Riverview Trail, along to Falls Ravine and making a leftie onto Tranquil Trail until it splits with Biddle. Be careful on this path if you have bad knees, but if you need to remind yourself that you can break through the runner’s wall, this is the way to do it. There are even drinking fountains along the way to keep hydrated and open bathrooms for when you’re a little too hydrated. It gets my heart to a comfortable cardiovascular workout rate, while still allowing me to control my breath and break a sweat. This route is what convinces me to continue on my quest for a heart healthy lifestyle and I always make sure to throw it into my weekly routine.
Whether you’re biking, walking, running or just playing in the parks, it’s a great way to begin and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Habits will form and you’ll soon begin craving your park the way I crave the dirt trails of Frick. When my dad comes to visit, we always make sure to take a walk on the trails through Frick Park. It not only gets the blood flowing and our legs moving, but breathing in the fresh air and feeling my heart steadily pump to the rhythm of our stride reminds me how precious life is and how happy I am that I’m still sharing it with my dad.
Holly Stayton is the eCommerce Development Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.