Anyone can enjoy the beauty and benefits of hiking

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."

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