Want a great way to enjoy the great outdoors? Though exercise may not be high on your list - for some kids it falls somewhere between brushing teeth and saving money - it's a smart idea.

Experts say walking is the perfect exercise for kids of all shapes and sizes, from athletic types working their way into a high-intensity workout to couch potatoes who want to shape up.

"Regular walking helps you keep physically fit without the risk of injury posed by more strenuous exercise," says Richard Cotton. He is an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, a group that promotes physical fitness.

"We've been working to change the perception that when it comes to physical fitness what matters is the amount of fat on your body. What matters is how physically active you are," he says. "Walking is the perfect exercise to reinforce that idea."

And walking requires neither pain-for-gain nor much of an attention span. Laurie Tif, an expert in sports medicine at Georgia State University, puts it like this: "If you're walking for physical fitness, all you need to do is walk at a sustained pace - so that you're just a little out of breath - for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week. Walking should be an activity you can do while chatting with a friend or hanging at the mall."

Walking is also the ideal exercise for overweight kids because it doesn't overwork the body.

"Start out slow," Tif says, "then work up to at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week."

Tif says walking is an especially fitting exercise for adolescents because their bodies are constantly changing. "Adolescents' bones are growing at a faster pace than their muscles, which makes them vulnerable to long-term injury."

So it's important that all young athletes include walking in their exercise routines, Tif says. "If you're a runner, try alternating between walking and running every other day. You'll reduce the repetitive stress to your body and therefore the risk of injury."

Just remember, Cotton says, "exercise should be fun, not punishment. Walking, because it's not performance oriented or competitive, is just that: fun."

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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