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Exercisers of All Ages Can Enjoy
the Beauty and Benefits of Hiking and Walking

By Mariko Thompson - New York Times Syndicate

Janice Roberts grips her lightweight backpack in one hand and starts to trot up a steep stretch of trail that snakes through Runyon Canyon Park.

"You're going to run with me, right?" asks Roberts, a Sherman Oaks resident and trainer with Personal Trainers Los Angeles. "Come on, just to that tree at the next bend."

The short sprint is part of a routine that Roberts has devised for her weekend fitness hiking class. The former U.S. Army sergeant became trail-toughened on 15-mile marches. So for Roberts, back-to-back workouts on the three-mile loop with beginner and advanced groups makes for a leisurely morning.

"Some people don't want to be enclosed in a gym," she says. "Get outside, get off the treadmill and the StairMaster. Hiking really changes up things."

In Los Angeles, where the great outdoors beckons all year round, hiking can be a great way to escape the monotony of the gym and get a heart-pumping workout.

Steven Loy, kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, says hiking provides the same benefits as the treadmill. Hikers get an aerobic workout while building the quadriceps and the gluteal muscles. The brief sojourn with nature also leaves many hikers feeling soothed in spirit.

"You don't have to have any special skills," says Mary Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society. "You can go out on an afternoon and hike. It has wonderful health benefits, physical and emotional."

According to a recreation survey conducted by the American Hiking Society, more Americans are taking to the trails. From 2000 to 2002, the number of Americans who cited hiking as an activity grew from 67 million participants to 75 million.

Even Kathy Smith, who built her fitness empire on home video workouts, makes hiking a regular part of her personal exercise routine. Smith goes on Saturday hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains with a group of friends.

"It's like one big coffee klatsch," Smith says. "On a two-hour hike, you exchange fun stories and catch up on the week. It's also one of the things that keeps me in the shape I'm in. There's no way you can walk on a treadmill for two hours without getting bored out of your mind."

Down, set, hike

Mike Byrne did get bored out of his mind and that's how he discovered the Stough Canyon Nature Center fitness hikes. Byrne, a 58-year-old Burbank resident, suffered a heart attack 18 months ago. His doctor recommended he start a regular exercise program and lose some weight. Though he has a treadmill at home, Byrne found that it was too easy to stop.

He stumbled on the nature center fitness hikes by accident. One evening, he went for a walk and saw a group gathering in front of the nature center. He learned about the twice-weekly hikes up the fire trail. Now he attends the beginner walk on Tuesdays, the advanced walk on Wednesdays, and covers the same trail on Saturday outings with friends he made in the class.

"I've lost over 45 pounds," Byrne says. "Once you get to the top, you've got no choice but to go all the way back."

The Tuesday hike on a chilly moonlit evening draws about 20 people, from children to retirees. Hike leader Esther Villegas sets off at a brisk pace on a path that winds uphill for 1 1/2 miles. Alice Shinmoto, a 58-year-old Glendale resident, points out constellations in the sky — the Big Dipper, Orion. Colleen Koll, 49, of Burbank tells a friend about a coyote that she spotted on a recent hike.

Villegas gives the group a rest at a flat expanse called the Saddle. On one side of the Saddle, headlights dance along Highway 210. On the other side, city lights twinkle all the way to the Pacific.

"A few more turns and we'll hit Cardiac Hill," Koll says.

"The tough ones jog it," Byrne says.

"When I can walk up here and not break a sweat, then I'll know it's time to go to the Wednesday group," Koll adds. "They're the warriors."

The stretch called Cardiac Hill is the last incline before the trail ends at a picnic table overlooking Los Angeles. Byrne picks out landmarks in the electric patchwork. The Burbank airport. L.A.'s downtown skyline. And the black, mountainous silhouette in the sea of lights? That's Griffith Park.

"In the summer on a clear day you can see all the way to Catalina Island," he says. "This is what makes it all worthwhile."

Moving up in Hollywood

Like Stough Canyon, Runyon Canyon Park is one of those pockets of rugged California beauty bordered by freeways and hillside homes. The park stretches north from the Hollywood Hills to Mulholland Drive. A part-paved, part-dirt road zigzags to a peak with a panoramic view of west L.A.

With the late afternoon sun elongating shadows along the trail, Roberts, the PTLA trainer, demonstrates how she runs her weekend hiking class. Petite and muscular, Roberts breaks the hike into four intervals, mixing cardiovascular and strength training.

After the first leg of the hike, Roberts steps off the trail near a pair of trees and pulls resistance bands from her backpack. She does several sets of bicep curls and shoulder raises. Then she continues up the trail to another bend in the road, where she stops to work the lower body with a series of side lunges, squats and leg lifts.

"Now we bring the heart rate up," she says, then sprints the next part of the trail.

She waits for a straggler at the next tree. Then it's a brisk walk to the top, where she pauses to enjoy the view. Roberts has been leading friends and clients on hikes for years. The hiking class, launched earlier this month, formalized what she's been doing for six years. The advantage to fitness hiking is there's always a more challenging trail.

"People will have a chance to move from one level to the next," she says. "That gives them a goal, something to look forward to."

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