THE LATEST edition of Ultrafit magazine says that any man can run a mile in under four minutes and any woman in under four-and-a-half. Equally anyone can run a sub-four-hour marathon. It's just a matter of training.

More likely you can't run a stitch and don't want to. Most people in this country think that running is an activity only for the very late or the very mad. My father-in-law (a pack-a-day smoker for 50 years) earnestly warned me of the jogging-induced heart attack. "They become addicted you know," he told me, as he spread a little more bread on his butter.

Running's bad reputation stems from two sources: hellish childhood experiences and the sight of purple-faced adult lunatics pounding the streets. But all that is changing with the growing awareness in fitness that it is not all or nothing. That doing what professionals call "a bit" is still worthwhile.

"Running is getting a much friendlier face," says Sean Fishpool, deputy editor of Runner's World magazine. "It's a lifestyle choice. People think they have to be Linford Christie but at any level, you are doing yourself good. Professionals acknowledge this now and a lot of running clubs have beginners' nights."

Burning 350 calories per half hour running is way ahead of swimming, aerobics, cycling and rowing. Running will lower your resting heart rate, lower blood pressure and strengthen the cardiovascular system.

The fastest-growing race-running area, according to Fishpool, is the fun run. Race for Life, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's brainchild, has grown enormously in the last year. Race for Life holds 38 women's races a year. The race distance is 5km and the word "race" is nominal since you can walk if you like. A lot of women do run, many for the first time, and with the pressure removed they want to do it.

Samantha Travers, a 35-year-old electrical engineer, and a "no pain, still some gain" runner says that outdoor running is the ideal exercise because it is a stress reliever as well as a thigh tightener.

"I've been doing it on and off for about a year," she says. "I normally go for about 20 minutes. I probably run for about 14 minutes. I love it. I like being out in the open air. It gives me space to think, it clears my mind. I feel better afterwards. But I don't push myself. I try and go a little bit further before walking every time but if I'm tired or not in the mood, well so be it. I know that if I had a hard time, it would be difficult to force myself to go again. Even at this level, though, it still benefits my body and my energy levels. I go twice a week, as well as one half-hour swim."

Of course you can go for the sub-four-minute mile, but bearing in mind the "Seb Coe" way begins "Day 1. Run 10 miles in an hour", I think perhaps we'll leave it.

How to run

1. Lift your feet off the ground and your arms up - people in cars won't laugh, honest.

2. You should be able to chat without gasping

3. Get proper trainers. (Runner's World magazine has a directory of specialist running shops).

4. Short grass is the best surface, tarmac is better than concrete. Joint damage risk is more than outweighed by the long-term health benefits, however.

5. Stretch before and afterwards (running tightens and shortens the leg muscles).

6. To avoid boredom, have some kind of goal.

7. A treadmill is easier because the ground continues to move when you are mid-stride. To counteract this, says Sean Fishpool, "try running at an elevation of 1 per cent".