40 minutes a day to a brand-new you

123 older woman in pink trousers walking in park

It's fun, fat burning and free. It can give you time to think deeply, make new friends or even find a new love. As your body gains definition, the muffin top and cellulite you thought you were stuck with start to disappear. And best of all, being out in the fresh air is an intoxicating feeling.

Commit to walk for 40 minutes, six days a week for a month. By the end, your mood and energy levels will be up and your weight should be down - all without dieting. In a year's time you could be a stone or two lighter without ever feeling hungry. If you saw these claims on a bottle, you'd contact Trading Standards - but it's true. The only tricky bit is getting started.

So if it's still daylight, put your trainers on and step outside right now. Walk for ten minutes, just to get the feel of it, and you'll have started on your new life. Tomorrow, up the time to 15 minutes, and increase it every few days until you reach the 40 minutes-a-day you need to look and feel your best. It really is that easy.

Walk this way

To get the most out of your walking make sure you:

● Buy resilient, supportive walking shoes and wear them round the house before tackling a long walk. You'll find more advice on choosing walking shoes here
● Touch the ground heel first and roll through to your toes, treading lightly to protect your shins.
● Stand tall, keeping your shoulders back.
● Tighten core muscles (tummy, bottom, pelvic floor).
● Warm up and cool down by walking slowly for the first and last five minutes, or do leg stretches.
● Bend your arms and move opposite arm to opposite leg to work your waist.

Don't:

● Swing your arms and sway your hips. ‘Keeping hips level protects your knees,' says walking guru Joanna Hall.
● Lengthen your stride to speed up - just take faster steps.
● Ignore heel pain. Check it out with your GP.

Walking and weight loss

If you want to shift the pounds then you need to walk for four hours a week, according to Dr William Bird, who pioneered Health Walks in the UK. Just 40 minutes a day for six days can burn 1,600 calories - a whole day's allowance if you're sedentary. The only catch is that you can't amble your way into shape - you need to walk at what experts call a ‘moderate' pace, which most of us would call brisk!

Hurrying as if you're late gives your heart and lungs a workout and boosts your metabolism so you burn fat faster.

Most people with health problems feel 100% better for walking, but there are exceptions and it's wise to check with your GP if you're concerned. But don't give up because your joints ache. ‘It's usually because the muscles that support them are weak and that does improve,' says William Bird. GP Dr Carol Cooper suggests this simple exercise to build up the muscles supporting your knees: sit on the floor with your legs out straight in front of you and raise one heel about four inches off the floor. Hold for ten seconds, then lower it. Repeat ten times, then swap legs.

Natural mood booster

If you're depressed, walking can be as effective as pills. And it's not just exercise that sends endorphins whizzing round your brain - those green spaces work their own special magic.

When Swedish social scientist Terry Hartig compared walking in a nature reserve with pounding urban pavements, he found that the nature walk lowered blood pressure more effectively. And research shows that while nine out of 10 people are buoyant after a green walk, only four in 10 feel better for trudging round a shopping centre.

We're hard-wired to enjoy the natural environment because for centuries, we've lived off the land, says Dr William Bird, who's also a health advisor to countryside charity Natural England. ‘If we're deprived of it, our concentration goes down and stress goes up.' As a result, Natural England is launching a Natural Health Service initiative, doubling the number of Health Walks and launching more country and coastal conservation schemes that benefit health and the environment. Find out more at www.naturalengland.org.uk.

Even if you're one of the 80% of people who live in a town, you needn't miss out - just head for your local park and let the healing power of nature into your life.

Inspiring reasons to walk...

You want to get fit

Try a Health Walk They're free, nationwide, and leaders are trained in first aid. Walks are short (two to three miles) and graded A-C in difficulty. There are also First Steps walks for those recovering from illness.
Not so good for... chatting. You should be walking too briskly to gossip. Contact Walking the Way to Health on 0300 060 2287 or visit www.whi.org.uk.

You want to make friends and enjoy the view

Try the Ramblers Although most of the 500 groups around the country opt for six to 12-mile hikes (often with a pub stop - hurrah!) some specialise in short, easy walks. You'll also find walks for families, 20s to 30s, city-dwellers, people with disabilities and dog-owners. Membership costs £27 a year, or there's a joint membership of £36 for two people living at the same address. You can even try one or two walks for free. For details, visit www.ramblers.org.uk.
Not so good for... anyone short of time, because walks take up most of the day.

You want to walk with like-minded people

Try a special interest walking group Many book clubs run walks, as do branches of the National Women's Register (www.nwr.org.uk), Rotary Clubs and individual companies. Go to www.walking-uk.com for a list.
Not so good for... surprises, as you'll know most people.

You want to help others as well as yourself

Try a charity walk Virtually every good cause runs them - from Breakthrough Breast Cancer to Oxfam - so check out your favourite's website.
Not so good for... flexibility. You'll need to commit to a date and most expect you to raise £50-£100 plus. The exception is Breast Cancer Campaign's Step On It initiative (www.breastcancercampaign.org). It involves walking a step for each of the 46,000 people diagnosed with breast cancer each year, in your own time.

You want to lose weight

Try a walking course Fitness guru Joanna Hall's Walk Off Weight course (£199) aims to shift 13lb and 14 inches in four weeks (www.walkactive.co.uk). Sarah Liveing organises group walks (£60 for six) and individual courses (from £40 per session) in Buckinghamshire - contact www.walkingforweightloss.co.uk.
Not so good for... your budget, as the courses are costly.

You want to find a soul-mate!

Try the web At www.go4awalk.com, for example, you can look for a walking buddy and download walks. Membership costs £14.95.
Not so good for... serious dating. The walking comes first.

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Branch out with one of our free walks around the country

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