Paths, which were once simply means for enjoying fresh air, outdoor socializing and reaching destinations, have been more recently since work and travel have become less physically demanding called upon increasingly to provide opportunities for physical exertion.
Walking at any speed provides fundamental, wide ranging beneficial exercise. As the American physician Alvah H. Doty recommended nearly a century ago and legions have urged since, walking should be undertaken daily and systematically for health and extended life. “It would be difficult to conceive of a simpler and more effective protection against undue internal blood pressure than walking,” the doctor wrote, “both for its simplicity and effectiveness; besides it costs nothing, and it is available at all times for any one not physically disabled.” Still, he guessed correctly that many people would spurn it precisely because it cost nothing.
Power walkers and joggers are like walkers seeking destinations, except that their goals are not locational, but rather cardio-vascular or callisthenic.
Almost any path can be taken for exercise, and most are, but some are much better suited to the purpose than others. Paths designed specifically for exercise offer extended length, form a loop, include few stops for crossing streets, and offer varied terrain. Slopes are included because studies have found that all exercisers, even the elderly, favor them.
Examples of pre-eminently exercise-driven paths include the back-country hiking trail, the wooded cross-country running path, the urban jogging loop, and the adventure path spiced with children’s play equipment. Normal path-design guidelines may be broken: A fitness path may ford a stream; it may seek out slopes and go straight up them; it may include steps.
Paths specifically designed for exercise often include fitness stations at regular intervals—a chinning bar, balance beam or other basic equipment. Distance markers each quarter mile or few hundred meters also suit exercisers, who like to know how far they’re going or how fast (or how long before they can quit).
A recent study of 300 New Zealand elders found that those wearing pedometers increased their walking times almost twice as much as those without the devices.
Other noteworthies: For evening exercise, lighting is required. Exercisers often seek longer routes for weekend outings. If winter activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing are anticipated, the depth of snow and lateral ski movements must be accommodated in the corridor’s height and width.
The kind of outdoor exercise people seek varies by speed and amount, two factors which are often related.
Runners tend to be younger and seek more overall effort than either joggers or walker/striders. Runners and joggers need smoother curves and longer sightlines which is why they often run in roadways. They prefer routes with the fewest interruptions such as traffic crossings. They like firm, but cushioned treadways, which is why running tracks incorporate cork, rubber, or cushioning synthetics in their pavements. They appreciate seats and especially water along the route.
For their part, walkers accept almost any firm surface and some interruptions along the route. They have enough time to enjoy the surroundings, so they approximate strollers. They appreciate announcements of the route’s difficulty levels because humans have difficulty assessing the relative efforts required by different routes even after traveling them.
An exercise jaunt can cause oddities in routing. For instance, since a direct walk to work takes me only 10-15 minutes, I often leave the house striding away from the office, to ensure a heart-pumping walk of at least 25 minutes.
A good example of an urban exercise route circles Back Cove, a tidal lagoon in the heart of Portland, Maine. Its 4-mile loop edges wildlife sanctuaries and inter-tidal wetlands with views of the Portland skyline. It forms the heart of a 50-mile path system that connects directly to downtown offices and inland residential neighborhoods.
Its stone-dust and paved 8-foot wide path annotated with distance signs and amplified with exercise stations is so popular with walkers at all times of day and year that most serious bicyclists and runners go elsewhere.