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The Inside Scoop on Outdoor Fitness

A lot of us have grown used to spending most of our time sitting around indoors. We've grown bigger, too: Two out of three Americans weigh too much.

If we could just get more exercise, doctors say, we could reap health benefits ranging from reduced weight and longer lives to greater well-being. With warm weather on the way, now's the time to embrace the great outdoors. Want to go out and play? Here are some ideas.

Water world

The water attracts all types of people, from patient fishing enthusiasts to bold white-water kayakers. Just about any activity around the water burns calories, but if you're looking for a vigorous workout, grab a paddle. Rowing a canoe, kayak, or boat works all the major muscle groups.

You might want to try canoeing or kayaking with veteran paddlers first. Paddling clubs often have classes to introduce beginners to basic skills, safety rules, and equipment. Guided trips are common in many areas, and you can often rent canoes and kayaks.

To get started, visit the website of the American Canoe Association, which serves canoers, kayakers, and rafters. Its website includes paddling clubs and water trails, along with resources for beginners. Stores that sell watercraft can also point you toward classes and other resources.

Which watercraft is right for you? That depends on your goals. Both canoes and kayaks work well for a casual or fitness-oriented paddle on relatively still water, such as a lake. Both can be suitable for rivers, depending on the conditions. Specialized canoes and kayaks match various types of water and skill levels.

Solo travelers will find a kayak easier than a canoe to steer in a straight line. A couple or a parent and child can share a tandem kayak, which has two cockpits (the opening where the paddler sits). Canoes, open from bow to stern, work better with two people.  

You might get less of a workout in bigger watercraft. Still, piloting a small sailboat through waves will keep you busy. For a more active (but wetter) activity, do away with most of the boat but keep the sail; we call that windsurfing.

Whatever watercraft you use, you and everyone who joins you will need to wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device that fits properly.

Seeking the summit

The idea of hiking may call up images of long, steep trails covered with pine needles. Yet hikes can be urban or woodsy, long or short, hard or easy.

Beginners can start with short, level routes close to home. All it takes is a bottle of water to stay hydrated and walking shoes that fit well to support and protect your feet. You can plan hikes around your interests, too. Perhaps you'd like to try bird-watching or scope out historic sites.

Some hikers are ready for more of a challenge, like half-day or full-day hikes on weekends. You'll find information on hiking and other outdoor activities at http://www.treadlightly.org.

Be sure to carry a backpack with these vital items: water, snacks, map, compass, first aid kit, pocket-knife, flashlight, matches, toilet paper, sunglasses, sunscreen, and clothing for all possible weather conditions (rainy, windy, cold, hot).

Build up experience and knowledge before you try an overnight backpacking trip. Classes and other information from outdoor groups can provide valuable information, such as how to find your way around in the wilderness.

Rolling along

Like hiking, in-line skating can suit a lot of fitness levels and personal styles. Fast, vigorous skating or racing can give you a heart-pounding aerobic workout. Some skaters use a sail on land, a variation on windsurfing, while others dance on their skates. A simple spin around the park can provide children and adults alike with a good way to get moving outdoors.

If you want to try in-line skating, consider renting the skates (and all the safety gear) to get started. Choose skates that fit your feet snugly and wear a helmet, wrist guards, and elbow and kneepads.

Start on a smooth, flat surface without hazards like rocks, oil or traffic. Learn and practice moving forward, stopping, and turning. Instructors can teach the basics. Be sure to skate under control, yield to pedestrians, and follow the rules of the road for everyone's safety.

Pedal pushers

Bicycling is a great way to get around, work out, and see the sights. Cycling can appeal to all ages and abilities.

It's important to find the right bike for the type of riding you plan to do, such as mountain biking or touring. A bike that fits you is vital, too. The staff at a good bike retailer can teach you how to choose the best bike and gauge the fit. For instance, you should be able to touch the ground with both feet while straddling the tube that runs from the handlebars to the seat.

Stay safe by wearing a well-fitting bike helmet, following traffic laws, and keeping visible with reflective clothing. If you do off-road or trail riding, you'll need other safety gear, such as a full-face helmet and shin pads.