Lockdown got you down? Get out on Pa.’s rail trails for your health and to help the economy

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The classic song lyrics “Summertime, and the living is easy…” seem almost cruel this year. Smoldering racial injustice, a lingering pandemic, and divisive political posturing heading toward a tumultuous Presidential election have combined to make this an uneasy summer as we worry about what autumn may bring.

We’re still trying to figure out how to navigate the remaining summer months. Vacation plans have been disrupted. Concerts and sporting events have been cancelled. Large family gatherings are a no-no. It’s unhealthy to sit at home and stare out the window, but even trying to get some exercise may not be a great idea for those most susceptible to the worst impacts of COVID-19.

Many older Pennsylvanians have come to rely on indoor gym facilities in order to stay active. An attractive feature of some Medicare Advantage plans, the private insurance alternative to standard Medicare, has been a free gym membership.

It’s been a way to both exercise and develop social relationships. But in the age of COVID-19, gyms and older people aren’t a good combination. Older Pennsylvanians need another outlet for physical activity in this summer of our discontent.

Enter the ongoing efforts to make our communities more “livable”. A key aspect of that movement has been the development of a network of trails in urban, suburban, and rural settings. The classic picture of this has been mothers and fathers pushing a stroller through a park, or a lycra-clad bicyclist zipping down a path. The reality of these trails, however, is more older individuals are using them as they become an integral part of communities.

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The York County Rail Trail Authority reported that use of the Heritage Rail Trail, which stretches 21 miles from John Rudy County Park near Emigsville, through the city of York to the Maryland line, increased 242 percent from May of 2019 to May of 2020. It is one of 183 (and counting) rail trails in Pennsylvania, found in all corners of the commonwealth.

These trails are great for walking and serving as a path to link neighborhoods. But for those looking for a substitute for a daily routine at the gym, the opportunity to use them to safely get out on a bicycle is a key feature.

In an age of social distancing, bicycles are poised to become a more important part of many people’s daily lives. Sales of both new and used bicycles have skyrocketed in recent months. From shopping trips to work commutes, bicycles can be an alternative to cars and mass transit.

But exercise remains an important aspect of bicycling, and for those who have worn out their knees or ankles at a younger age it’s a way to continue to maintain an active lifestyle. If you haven’t ridden a bicycle for many years, however, how do you get started again?

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The first step is a trip to a local bike shop. They can seem like intimidating places, with three-and-four-thousand-dollar racing bikes in the display windows.

But bicycle shop employees are some of the most helpful people you’ll meet, are extremely patient with new riders, and will make recommendations to get you the type of bicycle that will work best for you, as opposed to a Tour de France athlete. And whatever your price range, there is a bicycle that can meet it.

There are a couple things you are going to need in addition to a bicycle if you’re looking to make riding an exercise routine. One is a method to transport your bike. A quick way to get turned off from bicycles is to start out riding on the shoulder of a busy road. Talk to the folks at your local bike shop about a bicycle rack for your car and take your bike to a rail trail and ride without traffic.

The other thing you must have is a helmet. No ifs, ands, or buts, you should wear a helmet when you ride a bicycle, whether on a street or on a trail.

Many things are changing because of COVID-19, and how to stay active and fit is one of them. Communities are figuring out their residents want a way to safely exercise and trails help them do so.

Take advantage of Pennsylvania’s rail trails this summer and encourage their further development. They have proven to benefit the economy, the environment, and the health of our communities.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.