A walk in the park: savoring life’s small dramas, one lap at a time

Every morning, after I’ve worked at my desk for a couple of hours, I go walking in a nearby park. It’s a ritual I’ve followed for 14 years, ever since my husband, my son, and I moved to our Los Angeles house.

I smear on sunscreen and pull on a hat and sunglasses, and off I go for my usual four miles. Even if it rains (unless it’s torrential), I do 13 laps around a track that meanders along a playground lined with strollers, curves around a bank of jasmine past baseball diamonds and soccer fields, and slips coolly under pine, magnolia, and pittosporum trees.

This head-clearing march, which I do for obvious reasons (exercise, weight control), is also a never-ending source of midday entertainment. Do anything in one place long enough, and you come to know the regulars.

At my park, these run the gamut, from babies in slings to the ancient grandpa with a cane to other track rats like me. This latter group includes friends who meet to stretch, run, or walk their dogs (one guy jogs with a scrappy terrier, one girl trots with a stuffy, dignified Bouvier); an older woman with an ever-shifting cast of pals; a nonstop talker who, even alone, is constantly on her phone.

Over the months, I’ve watched a man with a gray crew cut and the name of a Russian professional boxer on his T-shirt whittle away an impressive gut. Another guy, who runs shirtless, a religious medal bouncing on his chest, is a lane hog: Running clockwise, counter to prevailing traffic, he claims the inside track; if someone’s on it, he bears down, muttering curses, till the person moves. Yet he, too, has dogs, a German shepherd and a poodle mix he brings for catch with a tennis ball–a sign he can’t be all bad.

Since I am in the land of cute, toned actors with iPods, the sights are sometimes unexpected: A line of people on Segway scooters may roll past on the sidewalk below the track. A group of joggers might appear in high-topped plastic boots with giant springs in place of soles.

Change comes to my park, too: I’ve seen children pushed in running strollers outgrow them, to be replaced by smaller siblings. I’ve watched a speed-walking couple, the woman in heart-patterned pajama pants, suddenly break into a fight, departing in different directions.

One girl in a bandanna used to regularly meet a guy who didn’t appear to notice what was obvious to me–her painful crush on him. They haven’t been back in a while.

Last week, though, my cloak of walker’s anonymity was lifted when someone signaled that she’d noticed me.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” she said shyly–a slim, familiar–looking walker with a ponytail and shorts–“but I recognized your hat. I’ve seen you here for years, since I first came with my baby. I used to think, Wow, look at her. She’s so good; she totally works exercise into her day. Then it dawned on me: If I’m seeing her, I’m here, too; I can work this into my day. I’ve lost 30 pounds because of you. I just wanted you to know.”

I blushed and beamed. I told her she looked terrific–she did–and then I pushed off. I still had three more laps to go.

30 days to a beach-ready body

No false promises: You will have to work a little harder. Only for a month, though, with moves that go right for your trouble spots.

If baggy T-shirts or cover-ups look like your best beach-wear options, we’ve got a shape-up plan that might change your thinking. Fact is, if you start now and can devote about 30 minutes a day, six days a week, for the next month, it’s possible to slim and sculpt your stomach, legs, butt, arms, and back by bathing suit season.

The secret is to up your muscle-to-fat ratio, says Jim Clarry, a trainer at New York’s David Barton Gym. “Each pound of muscle can burn 50 calories a day,” says Clarry. “And that leads to fat loss.” Not to mention a toned body. Expect to replace about four pounds of fat with muscle – and lose up to an inch and a half in your hips, thighs, and waist – with this plan. How it works:

Part 1 Do 20 to 30 minutes of weight training three times a week (skipping a day in between so your muscles can recover).

Part 2 On alternating days (three times a week total), do 20 to 30 minutes al aerobic exercise. Choose fast walking,jogging, biking, aerobics, a treadmill – whatever workout gets your heart beating fast yet doesn’t leave you too breathless to talk comfortably.

Part 3 Eat sensibly. Cut back on foods that stimulate the appetite, such as simple sugars (cookies and cake, for example). Also, avoid eating saturated fats (found in meat, butter, cheese) and have your fill of low-fat, fiber-packed foods (vegetables, for example). Because fiber isn’t absorbed by the body, it helps you fell full without adding calories.

Part 4 To maintain your loon look throughout the summer (and beyond), you can cut back your workout schedule to two or three times a week, but you’ll need to do both the strength-training routine and 15 minutes of intense aerobic exercise (jogging, jumping rope) in each session. (The cumulative effect ups your body’s fat-burning potential.)

The Toners

Do the strength-training moves that follow using a set of three-to five-pound hand weights. (To choose, hold a five-pound weight out to your side for ten seconds; if it’s just too heavy to handle, try the same test with a four-pound weight, then, if necessary, a three-pound weight.) Count to 4 slowly during the first part of each exercise, and count to 4 again as you return to the starting position. Each time you work out, add one count (so that by the third time you do these moves, you’ll count to 6, and so on until you reach 16). Note: If you’re doing either the toning or aerobic exercises first thing in the morning, warm up your muscles by jogging in place for a few minutes.

The squat (works butt, thigh, and hip muscles): Grasping a weight in each hand, stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at sides. Squat down so knees are directly over toes, keeping your butt out. The first day you do the move, count to 4 as you go down and again as you rise back up. Then, each time afterward, add one count until you reach 16. Do ten repetitions. TIP: Keep your shoulders back and chest up.

Stiff-legged lift (works butt and back of legs): Stand with knees slightly bent, hands at sides. Bend forward as far as your hamstrings (back-of-thigh muscles) allow, keeping your back flat and heels on the ground. Return to starting position. Do ten repetitions. TIP: Keeping your chest up will help your back stay flat.

Chest fly (works pectoral muscles, which support the bustline): Lie on floor with arms out to sides, hands grasping weights, palms toward feet. Hold lower arms and end of each weight just above the floor. With elbows slightly bent, lift arms up and toward center until the weights nearly touch; return to starting position. Do eight repetitions. TIP: Slightly arch your lower back to help keep your chest up during the move.

Side lifts (shapes shoulders): Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at sides, palms facing body. Lift both arms slowly until they are parallel to the floor, pause briefly, then return to starting position. Do eight repetitions. TIP: Keep knees and elbows relaxed.

Back row (creates a sexy back by working the “lats”): Stand with knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Lean forward, placing right hand on a chair seat so that torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Hold left arm to side with dumbbell in hand. Pull left elbow up the side of your body (as if starting a lawn mower), hold briefly, then go back down. Do eight repetitions. Repeat with opposite side. TIP: Your elbow should be slightly higher than your torso before you hold the position.

Tricep extension (firms back of upper arms): Sit in a chair and, with weight in hand, hold left arm straight up above your head, palm facing in. Slowly bend your left elbow to bring the weight down as far as it will go (without forcing it) and then back up. Do eight repetitions. Repeat with other arm. TIP: Your upper arm should not move. If necessary, stabilize it by reaching around front of body and grasping the arm with your free hand.

Bicep curl (shapes and strengthens front of upper arms): Stand with arms at sides, palms facing forward. Bend your arms at the elbow to lift the weights up near your chest. Return to starting position. Do eight repetitions. TIP: Arms should remain still from elbow to shoulder.

Reverse ab crunch (works entire midsection): Lie on your back with knees and feet together, thighs perpendicular to the floor, and knees fully bent. Press lower back into the floor, place arms at sides and palms on floor, and rest head and neck on a small pillow. Press palms into floor and move knees toward collarbone, which will cause hips to elevate. Contract abs as you move pelvis toward head, and hold for the duration of the count. Then, slowly lower pelvis. Do eight repetitions. TIP: Keep middle of back on floor the whole time – only your butt and hips should lift.

A WEEK AT A GLANCE

Although our shape-up plan requires you to carve out time from your no doubt crowded schedule, a few shortcuts may help. For instance, although it’s best to do all eight strength-training exercises in a row (to give muscles more of a workout), once a week you can break them up into two groups of four. And if you have to cut back, skip the tricep and bicep exercises. (The reason: The muscles they tone will got a partial workout through some of the other exercises.) As for aerobic exercise, try to work activities into your everyday routine. Walk (or bike or skate) a bit farther each time – in the sum amount of time.

Monday

Set your alarm earlier and do all eight strength-training exercises as you listen to the news. (Remember to warm your muscles by jogging in place first.)

Tuesday

Go for a 30-minute walk with friends at lunch. Or if you have a treadmill, use it for half an hour while your husband makes the salad and sets the table for dinner.

Wednesday

Do the first four weight exercises as soon as you wake up (keep your weights beside your bed as a reminder). Do the other half after the kids are in bed.

Thursday

Take an aerobics or spinning class (or pop in an exercise video at home); motivation may be flagging, and it helps to have someone else set the pace. Or spend 20 minutes on a stationary bike, followed by 5 minutes each of jogging in place and jumping rope. Do before or right after work.

Friday

Day off. (Note: Schedule your weekly break on whatever day is typically busiest.)

Saturday

Do all eight strength-training exercises while the kids are busy watching cartoons.

Sunday

Push yourself a little harder. Go bike riding or Roller-blading with the kids (make sure you get in 30 minutes of high-intensity activity) or take a 30-minute jog.