One of the latest health-centric catchphrases I’ve been hearing lately is “sitting is the new smoking.” Whoever came up with it makes a good point.

I know I tend to sit for entirely too long while at work, as evidenced by the creaks and groans anyone within earshot can hear when I do finally get up. But honestly, this is the old me talking. The new me started walking – a lot – last August.

Most days I walk round-trip to and from work, which is three miles each way and includes crossing the Casco Bay Bridge. This walk has become essential to my well-being in every sense: physical, emotional and almost even spiritual.

In case you need a little nudge to don your sneakers, consider this: Walking has been linked to lowering your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can strengthen your bones and muscles, important benefits as we age. It can slow mental decline. And hey, it’s free, assuming you have a decent pair of sneakers in your closet already.

Need an example? Women who walked 30 minutes a day reduced their risk of stroke by 20 percent – by 40 percent when they stepped up the pace, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Here’s another: A study from the University of Virginia Health System found that men between the ages of 71 and 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile per day had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, compared to those who walked less.

On the days that I don’t walk – and on some days when I need a little midday rejuvenation – I like to get out for an stroll around downtown Portland. Here are three routes that afford me not only fitness, but unexpected discoveries in a city I thought I knew so well.

All of the walks can be improvised along the way. Each takes about half an hour, which generally burns 200 calories.

Think of the streets of Portland as your own personal Yellow Brick Road. You never know what’s around the bend, who you might meet and where you might end up. Have at it and get out there!

The ‘On the Waterfront’

A good place to start this walk is somewhere around the corner of Commercial and India streets. Stay on the water side of the street and your first stop will be down to the Maine State Pier. Since the concert season is still months away you can walk down the end and watch the ferries and other boats come and go. And if you’re lucky, like I was the other day, you might spot a seal. After leaving the pier, get back on Commercial Street headed toward Becky’s Diner and take a left onto Custom House Wharf, home of Harbor Fish Market. Just keep walking until you can’t walk any farther; it’s all accessible to the public and there are some fascinating old, sea-worn buildings. I did catch quite a noseful of fishy aroma emanating from a huge bin of fish guts by one of the local seafood companies, but it was charming in its own way.

Continue on your way by darting around near J’s Oyster Bar and DiMillo’s. You’ll be surprised how much real estate is down there and how much is accessible on foot. You can get a real feel for the “working waterfront” aspect of Portland. It’s a whole other world down there.

Details: This route is a flat one, although getting back to where you came from will involve an incline one way or another. Sidewalks are mostly brick and obstacles are minimal. Beware of the sea gulls though; they can’t be trusted. From the corner to DiMillo’s is a half-mile trek along Commercial Street. Each of the wharves is about an extra 500 feet. I didn’t keep track of distance, but all told I’m guessing in the neighborhood of two miles, give or take. And remember, it’s the journey, not the destination.

The ‘Congress Street Crawl’

This is a great walk any time of day. I do an out-and-back route, starting at Monument Square, heading up Congress Street, turning around at Longfellow Square and then walking back to Monument Square on the other side of Congress. I like this walk for a few reasons. For one thing, no matter what time of day, the people-watching is always entertaining. Also, I do a whole lot of window shopping – there are so many shops on Congress, including the unusual or unique Strange Maine, Moody Lords, The Merchant Co., Queen of Hats and The Sock Shack, among others. When you’re on foot, you can stop and check out window displays, then swing back later for some retail therapy. The Congress Street Crawl is also handy if you’re a music fan because you can see what’s coming up at Port City Music Hall, Empire, Blue, Geno’s, The State Theater and One Longfellow Square as you ease on down the road.

Details: This is a pretty flat route and round-trip it’s about 1.2 miles. Perfect for a quick pick-me-up.

Aimsel Ponti strolls past the Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf – one of many diversions along the waterfront.


The ‘Off the Beaten Path Old Port Tour’

I used to take the Old Port for granted. Been there. Done that. But when on foot with no particular place to go and a little bit of imagination, it can be adventurous maze – you can sing the Simon and Garfunkel “Sounds of Silence” line, “In restless dreams I walked alone, narrow street of cobblestone.” Except it’s not a dream, the cobbles are real all over the Old Port and, provided you’re not strutting around in high heels, there’s something kind of magical about treading over them. Also, ask yourself this question: When is the last time you walked down Silver Street? Or how about Market or Wharf or Milk? They’re waiting for you. Not to mention various alleys like the one off of Exchange Street that leads to Novare Res. Unleash your inner urban explorer.

Details: The terrain ranges from cobblestones to pavement with a variety of hills, depending on the route. Old Port boundaries are generally considered from the intersection of Franklin and Commercial streets, as far northeast as Federal Street and as far west as Maple Street. A straight shot from Franklin to Maple (turn on Fore Street and just keep walking) is just over a mile. How far you want to walk is entirely up to you. It’s fun to log those steps without even realizing it because you’re having such a good time.

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