Walking. It's free. It shows you nature. It's easy. You don't have to buy any special equipment or join a gym. Yet it provides a beautiful, natural, cardiopulmonary workout and tones the lower body.

Walking. It's free. It shows you nature. It's easy. You don't have to buy any special equipment or join a gym. Yet it provides a beautiful, natural, cardiopulmonary workout and tones the lower body.

And you feel happy and destressed afterward — enough so that you look forward to the next time — which cannot be said of all workouts.

Walking is so easy and healthful, in fact, that it's a wonder more people don't do what the Ashland Hilltoppers do: a five-mile walk through the more hilly and scenic parts of town every Saturday morning.

Created by Ashland schools employees more than a quarter century ago, the group originally was called Ashland Volksmarch, says Nancy Burnham.

That means "people walk," and it's a European tradition of doing 10-kilometer (6.2 miles), noncompetitive walks, gathering an array of pins and patches and trying to get into international record books. The sport also is called "volkswanderung."

The "sport" is spreading, if walking can actually be called a sport. At least four organized volkswalk groups have popped up in Ashland, enough that volksmarchers can find a group to hike with most days of the week, says Lynn Clegg.

"It keeps my weight down, and my heart rate is a lot better," says Clegg by way of endorsement.

Sabin Phelps notes the overall "cleanup" of the body that comes from walking, including heart, muscles and mind.

"I love it. It helps you not withdraw (with age), and we often reward ourselves with a beer afterward."

In walking groups, people tend to splinter into smaller klatches, based on whether they want to amble or stride, says Burnham.

"You get with like-minded people," she notes, with the more aerobic, fitness-minded folks way out front and the chattier strollers laughing it up at the rear.

Underestimated are the health benefits of camaraderie, connection and making a network of friends, whom you'll later have over for dinner or meet for cross-country skiing — or for Osher Lifelong Learning classes, says Caroline Morse.

"It's good aerobics, and I make sure I do it," says Morse. "It makes me very happy. We do it no matter what the weather."

"Socialization contributes to health. At the gym, your workout is usually alone and you're not talking to anyone," says Burnham.

"It's social and aerobic," says Sandra Henderson. "Ladies used to go to the hairdresser for this socialness, but now we have walking, and we talk about the birds and trees."

"It's very frustrating when we can't walk (because of a health or scheduling issue)," says Kay Johnson. "After you do it, you're really ready to take on the day."

Walking is good for heading off osteoporosis and maintaining bone density, says avid hiker-biker David Chapman. A bit of impact benefits the bones, and walking provides that, but "it doesn't tear up the bones" like some more vigorous workouts.

Says his wife, Susan Chapman, "It's good for heart, bones, friends ... and it clears out the fog."

For most walkers, it's only part of the fitness regimen. Most will go to the YMCA or another locale for weights, classes and swimming.

"It's wonderful to get you outside and get the blood moving, and it's a great stress-reliever with the struggles at work and at home," says trainer Carol Lee Rogers. "But to stay independent with age, you need to work your upper body, too. Walking with ski poles is good for that. Rowing is great."

When walking, mix in some hills so you can do it to fatigue, she adds. Walking up hills requires deeper breathing, and that strengthens the heart.

Walking is something you can do every day without fear of overdoing it, says Rogers. Doing it four or five days a week is considered "maintenance," and six or seven days is "cardio-building."

At least four walking groups are active in Ashland. The Hilltoppers leave from the Plaza at 9 a.m. Saturdays, and the Trinity Trekkers leave at 9 a.m. Wednesdays. Two other groups leave from Safeway at 9 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Rogue Valley Walkers walk every other Saturday at 10 a.m., with 6.2-mile loops in a different Rogue Valley city each time out. For details and meeting places, call 541-245-9356.