OPINION: Walking back to happiness – why going for a stroll is so good for you
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Christine Webber asks have you kept up the exercise regime you started during lockdown?
I’ve got a close friend who has Multiple Sclerosis. Despite her condition, she’s energising and optimistic, and very rarely mentions the things she can no longer do. So, it really stuck in my mind when she told me how much she missed walking for pleasure. “I’m afraid,” she said, “that’s totally beyond me now.”
I remembered her words yesterday, when I was wondering whether I had the inclination for a quick circuit of Norwich’s Eaton Park, and it got me thinking about how easy it is to take walking for granted. In fact, the only times we seem to get absorbed in its mechanics are when our children or grandchildren are learning how to do it. Then, we can find ourselves marvelling at the balance and co-ordination it demands. But mostly we don’t give it a thought.
So, this column is about the benefits and joy of walking – because for most of us, it’s the cheapest and most accessible form of exercise there is.
In the early days of lockdown masses of people took to the streets and green spaces to walk for the hour we were allowed out for exercise. But since lockdown was relaxed, the number of pedestrians seems to have diminished. I’d like to believe that these individuals are busy playing tennis or going to dance classes. But are they? As winter draws on, I know myself how easy it is to glance out of the window and say: “Not today.”
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And yet, if we want to live as well as possible for as long as possible, walking is one of the easiest ways to help us achieve that.
NHS UK’s website lists brisk walking as a good option for moderate aerobic activity as we age.
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Diabetes UK suggests we walk frequently and says: ‘Being active can increase the amount of glucose (sugar) used by your muscles and so may lower blood sugar levels.’
And the Royal Osteoporosis Society is particularly keen on walking because if you want to have healthy bones and maintain good bone density – something which becomes more difficult for post-menopausal women – they say your exercise must be ‘weight bearing with the weight of your whole body pulling down on your skeleton.’ To put it another way, at least some of your exercise per week should involve you being on your own two feet. This means that though swimming, rowing, cycling etc. are good in many ways, they’re not enough, because you don’t support your own weight while you do them.
Another major organisation, The Arthritis Foundation, also recommends walking. Their website says: ‘Go for a walk every day, if you can, but make sure you walk at least three to five times per week. If you’re just starting out and can only tolerate a five-minute walk, then start by walking for just five minutes a day, two or three days per week.’ They go on to say that you will soon build up your strength and almost certainly alleviate some of your arthritic symptoms.
So, there’s plenty of evidence that walking is good for our bodies. But our brains benefit too. A 2017 report in Science Daily said research had shown that ‘the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and increase the supply of blood to the brain’.
This is good news. As is the fact that walking is known to increase endorphins (‘feel-good chemicals’) in the blood stream. These really raise our mood – and let’s face it, most of us could do with cheering ourselves up right now. And according to the mental health charity MIND, walking also helps us to manage the stress, anxiety and intrusive and racing thoughts so many of us are prone to currently. If that isn’t enough to get you dusting off your walking shoes, I don’t know what will be!
Here in East Anglia, we’re incredibly lucky that so many of us live near amazing places to walk. We have wonderful beaches, wooded areas, coastal paths, the Broads and spectacular country parks in Breckland, West Suffolk and elsewhere. Really, we’re spoiled for choice. And as we walk, we can take in the beauty of the landscape, the plants, the birds and other wild life, and feed our souls – which helps us gain a healthier perspective than the one we have sitting home on an interminably dark day.
Talking of the weather, it has of course been unusually wet of late. But that avid walker, writer and broadcaster Arthur Wainwright once said: “‘There’s no such thing as bad weather – only unsuitable clothing!”
Naturally, we’d prefer to exercise when it’s sunny, but if we’re well protected and wrapped up when it’s not, we can still get moving and enjoy the great outdoors.
So maybe this year, instead of buying your spouse a bottle of whisky or the perfume you resort to every Christmas, you could splash out on some robust walking gear for him or her, or simply treat yourself. With luck it will last for ages. I’ve got a waxed jacket I bought in the Scottish borders 33 years ago. There’s plenty of life in it yet. In fact, it may well outlast its owner!