Walking for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week fights three major risk factors: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. The potential benefit is huge, since cardiovascular disease causes nearly 40 percent of all deaths in America.
Where do you begin? If you're out of shape, overweight, or at risk for some other reason, get a checkup first. Then start slowly and work up to more vigorous walking. To help put you on course, the Cooper Aerobics Center, a health and fitness organization, posts a 12-week beginner's program on its website www.cooperaerobics.com.
Choose a path that lets you set a good pace for at least 30 minutes at a stretch. Brisk walkers go about 4 miles per hour, so shoot for a route about 1 mile long each way.
Some of our favorite walking areas follow. Most have multiuse paths, with trails shared by walkers, joggers, cyclists, and skaters.
Christiansen Trail. One of the best trails in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve in northwest Phoenix, this 10.7-mile one-way stretch is used by hikers, mountain bikers, pooches (on leash), and equestrians. Most people walk a few miles from a selected trailhead. Starting points include Tatum Boulevard south of Doubletree Ranch Road; the end of 40th Street, south of Shea Boulevard; Northern Avenue east of State 51; Seventh Street south of Thunderbird Road; and Seventh Avenue south of Peoria Avenue. 602/262-7901.
Tempe Town Lake. Start at the parking lot near Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway. Twin paths — one paved and one graveled — follow a 3-mile loop around a lake peppered with birds. The trails are about 0.25 mile from the 15-mile Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, a good option if you want to go farther. www.tempe.gov/lake or 480/350-8625.
More favorite footpaths
Hayward Regional Shoreline. Start at the Hayward Area Recreation and Park Interpretive Center at the end of Breakwater Drive, just north of the San Mateo Bridge, and walk the San Francisco Bay Trail north 6.5 miles along gravel levees, passing restored wetlands. www.ebparks.org/parks/hayward.htm or 510/670-7270.
Upper Newport Bay. Park at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center (10–4 Tue–Sun; Irvine Ave. at University Dr.), get a map, and head out along the bluffs for a 3-mile loop on the West Bluff Trail. The graveled hiking path is more interesting than the wider, paved multiuse trail. www.ocparks.com/unbic or 949/923-2290.
Bear Creek Trail. Start where Bear Creek meets Park Street. Walk a 4-mile segment of the path over the rolling, grassy hills of Bear Creek Lake Park and on to the summit of Mt. Carbon, where you'll have splendid views of Denver and Red Rocks Park. The trail continues several miles beyond and links with Denver's Platte River Trail. 303/697-6159.
Ala Moana Regional Park. Enter park just west of Waikiki at Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana Boulevard to enjoy a 1.75-mile loop path. If you overheat, cool off at the park's excellent beach. www.hawaiiweb.com/html/ala_moana_beach_park.html or 808/592-2288. IDAHO
Boise River Greenbelt. Start at Ann Morrison Park, just south of the Boise River and west of Capitol Boulevard, and head east 2 miles to the Warm Springs Park footbridge. Cross and double back along the north shore to the Capitol Boulevard Bridge; recross to return for a 4.5-mile loop. 208/384-4240.
Clark County Wetlands Park. From Boulder Highway, take Tropicana Avenue east to the entrance, where you can park and do a 5-mile round-trip of connected gravel and concrete trails along bird-filled ponds, creeks, and cottonwoods. www.wetlandspark.org or 702/455-7522.
Paseo del Bosque Trail. Start at the Rio Grande Nature Center (8–5; $3 per vehicle; 2901 Candelaria Rd. N.W.), where you can take two 1-mile loop trails to see wintering geese, ducks, sandhill cranes, hawks, and even eagles. Then follow the paved Paseo del Bosque south 3.5 miles to Old Town, or north 5.5 miles to the Alameda wetland. 505/344-7240.
Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail. Park at Valley River Center mall or Maurie Jacobs Park, walk to the Willamette River, and head north to Owosso Bike Bridge. Cross and return on the other side, recrossing on the Greenway Bike Bridge for a 4-mile round-trip. www.ci.eugene.or.us/parks/maps.or 541/682-5291.
Salt Lake City
Jordan River Parkway. Start at 2100 South near 1100 West and head north. The trail runs 3 miles along the Jordan River, under trees and past parks on the way to Interstate 80, where there's a break. 801/972-7800.
Ruston Way waterfront. The path runs 2.5 miles from the old Asarco smelter plant southeast to Old Town. Park at any of the shoulder-to-shoulder waterfront parks along Ruston Way and start walking. Enjoy fabulous views north across Puget Sound. www.metroparkstacoma.org or 253/305-1000.
Your target heart rate
To get an aerobic benefit from exercise, you need to raise your heart rate. But by how much? As a general rule, you should be able to talk while walking. If you can sing, step up the pace — you aren't working hard enough. If you don't have the breath to carry on a conversation, you're probably working too hard.
You can also monitor your exertion level by checking your pulse periodically while exercising, aiming for a certain number of heartbeats per minute. To get your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Your target heart rate should be 50 to 75 percent of your maximum. Pace yourself, and consult your doctor if you're on medication for high blood pressure.
For more guidelines and a heart-rate chart, visit www.americanheart.org and search for "target heart rate."