Walking: a ‘silver bullet’ for so many woes

A crisp winter morning at Sutton Hoo.
Suffolk has some fantastic walking country

A crisp winter morning at Sutton Hoo. Suffolk has some fantastic walking country

Want to slim down and get healthier in the New Year? Forget trendy workouts and pricey gym membership - according to research, you’re better off going for a walk. And what better time to start than now, during the Ramblers’ annual Festival of Winter Walks? Sheena Grant reports

A Generic Photo of a couple walking in winter. See PA Feature HEALTH Walking. PA Photo/Thinkstockpho

A Generic Photo of a couple walking in winter. See PA Feature HEALTH Walking. PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature HEALTH Walking - Credit: PA

Walking, the simple act of repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other to propel yourself forward is one of the most underrated of human activities.

We claim we don’t have enough time to do it, it’s quicker and more convenient to take the car, it’s not going to produce the same fitness results as running, cycling or a workout at the gym. Walking, many of us seem to believe nowadays, is for people who don’t have a car or have to exercise their dog.

But to think like this misses one vital thing: walking is what we evolved to do.

There’s no other mammal that moves the way we do. Walking on two legs has shaped our evolution and our history. In many ways, it’s made us what we are.

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There’s a spiritual value in walking. It connects us to our surroundings and our environment, it allows us to see things we’ve never noticed before. The rhythm of walking, the very act of being on the move, can allow us to clear our heads and order our thoughts, especially in times of trouble. In short, it’s a tonic for the mind, body and soul. What’s more, you don’t need any equipment beyond a stout pair of shoes to do it. Walking costs nothing.

But don’t just take my word for it.

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New research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has found that people over 50 - and women of all ages - who regularly walked briskly for more than 30 minutes at a time, had a lower body mass index (BMI) and smaller waists than those who say they favour other forms of exercise, including gym workouts, cycling and swimming. (Men aged under 50 had similar waist sizes whether they walked or went to the gym).

Last year, a report by the Ramblers and Macmillian Cancer Support entitled Walking Works set out the health benefits of the humble walk, finding that regular walking to fulfil the 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise every week recommended by the UK’s chief medical officer could save 37,000 lives each year. It could also lead to nearly 300,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes.

In addition, according to research by Oregon State University 30 minutes of brisk walking over five days could aid sleep and help people feel more alert during the day.

And when it comes to mental health, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest walking has huge potential to help fight depression and reduce anxiety. Just the act of being outside, in nature, can help. Green Exercise, a University of Essex research team studying the benefits of walking in green spaces, found that it reduces stress, improves mood, enhances psychological wellbeing and improves attention and concentration.

It may be cold outside just now but that shouldn’t put anyone off walking.

For more than 25 years the Ramblers has celebrated the joy of walking in the colder months with an annual Festival of Winter Walks, which this year runs from December 19 to January 3 and features a host of free guided local walks to get involved with.

In Suffolk, there’s also a year-round programme of free health walks funded by Live Well Suffolk, the county’s healthy lifestyle service.

Stepping out in Suffolk walks are organised throughout the county, in rural and urban locations, and are designed to suit a variety of needs. There are more than 10 walks a week on offer.

Walks co-ordinator Stephanie Cullen says: “The ultimate aim is to assist anybody, of any ability or age to be able to come out and walk. We specialise in being supportive, social and ready to stop and take in what ever happens to come our way on a walk.

“We have walkers with dementia, post-operative hips and knees and those with mental ill health. People can walk as little or for how long they like.

“And we always try and factor in going back to a pub or cafe for a cup of tea as for a lot of people, there’s quite a social element to it. A lot of people want to come out walking with us because they feel socially isolated or lonely.”

A band of 116 volunteer walk guides provides the backbone of the programme and the appeal is wide.

“Walking doesn’t require you to put on lycra, take your clothes off or sweat too much,” says Stephanie. “I know people who have been coming on the walks for years and have seen the difference it makes to them. The evidence is all there about the benefits of walking for health and that’s our aim, to involve as many people as we can. It is a holistic approach to walking, as opposed to just exercise. We want people to enjoy themselves.”

So what is it about walking that’s so effective? A very big factor is that people who like to walk tend to do it very regularly, so they are more active overall - compared with non-walkers who, while they may say they do other forms of exercise, are possibly doing them far less frequently.

Previous studies have also found that walking can be far more effective - in terms of aiding fitness and weight loss, and warding off diseases - than people might think. And, as Dr Grace Lordan, who led the LSE research, notes, people who take up walking tend to stick with it more than other fitness regimes.

“People are also more likely to get walking ‘right’, as compared to gym exercises - it’s easier to know if you’re working to a moderate level with walking than with other exercises,” Dr Lordan adds.

She stresses that, although any exercise is better than none, to achieve significant results, walking needs to be at a decent pace, to a level where you’re perspiring and out of breath, for 30 minutes, five times a week.

As well as helping with weight management, by taking up regular brisk walks, you’re improving your overall health.

“Provided you don’t eat any worse, you could lower your cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular ill health, as well as improving your mental and physical health,” says Dr Lordan.

“Given that walking is an easier habit to adopt regularly than high-impact classes or complicated exercise regimes, I have to say we do underestimate how a regular walking habit could modify the lifestyles of many people. And walking costs nothing but your time.”

Although government guidelines recommend that adults should be doing 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, there’s no guidance on which activity is the most effective - and it’s estimated that as many as 80% of the UK population aren’t meeting the recommendations anyway.

It’s because of this, as well as the multiple and accessible benefits of walking, that Dr Lordan is now calling for a campaign to promote it as an effective way to tackle obesity, rather than public health messages about healthy eating.

“I would like to see a walking campaign targeted at people who currently do no activity,” she says. “It would be fantastic to see a campaign that lets people know that every brisk step counts.”

Claire Francis, campaigns manager at the walking and cycling charity Sustrans, agrees, and points out: “Walking is the perfect exercise - free, simple, and easily incorporated into our daily routine and travels. But sadly, many of us are missing out.

“If taking regular walks were a drug, doctors would prescribe it to absolutely everyone. It’s a silver bullet for so many of our health, economic and environmental woes.”

To find out more about health walks in Suffolk visit www.livewellsuffolk.org.uk/healthwalks.php or call 01473 229292. For more on the Rambers’ Festival of Winter Walks and to find a local event visit www.ramblers.org.uk/winterwalks.

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