Walking for Wellness – getting started

This blog is part one of a two part article on walking your way back to a healthier lifestyle. Part one aims to get you started with a regular walking routine, whilst part 2 covers the more strenuous activity of hillwalking.

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ― John Muir (Scottish/American conservationist)
HOW UNFIT ARE WE?
It seems we intuitively know that going for a walk is good for us, and that ‘getting a bit of fresh air’ will make us feel better.Despite this, 40% of men and 50% of women are still not taking enough exercise to benefit their health.  This increases the risk of serious illnesses, and increases the risk of being overweight.  In England 60% of adults are classed as overweight or obese.According to the Lancet, being inactive increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes by 25–30% and shortens lifespan by between 3 and 5 years. [i]
WHY WALKING?
If you go jogging, or running, you will burn more calories per hour than you would if you walked briskly, but over a set distance the numbers of calories burned are similar, it simply takes longer when walking.However, when you run there is a greater risk of injury to ankle, knee and hip joints due to the high impact nature of the activity. Walking, by contrast, is a low impact activity that is unlikely to cause injury.Walking reduces the risk of heart disease to a greater degree than running, burns more fat in the long term, and is free, requiring no special equipment, training, or gym or club memberships.

When walking, you can wear everyday clothing, reducing embarrassment for unfit or overweight people.

For many people, running is not an option, either they are carrying a pre-existing injury to ankles, knees or hips, or they are already overweight and find running to stressful, embarrassing or painful on their bodies.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have stated that:

“Walking is the most likely way all adults can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.”[ii]

 

People-Walking

No specialist gear required, just comfortable clothing

THE BENEFITS

Walking can bring a number of health benefits, many well documented, from improved sleep to reducing the risk of cancer.

The major physiological benefits include:

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness, (heart, lungs and circulatory system).
  • Improved muscular fitness.
  • Lower risk of certain cancers, particularly colon, breast and lung cancer.
  • Increased bone density, important in reducing risk of osteoporosis.
  • Lower blood pressure and reduced risk of strokes and heart disease.
  • Contributes to weight loss, (figures vary, but a 90kg person walking on a level path for 30 mins would burn approx. 160 calories).

Walking is important for our mental wellbeing too.

According to a study published in the American journal Environmental Science & Technology; outdoor exercise can provide, “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy.”

A recent study, also in America, has found quantifiable evidence that walking outdoors, and specifically in a natural environment, can lead to a lower risk of depression.

In the study, participants who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment, as opposed to those who walked in an urban setting, showed less activity in the part of the brain associated with depression.

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. [iii]

 

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO START?

At the very basic level, all you really need is a comfortable pair of shoes, they should fit you properly, give adequate support to your feet and not cause blisters.

Wear comfortable loose fitting clothing that allows for free movement. Choose several thinner garments rather than heavy, thick clothing. That way you can adjust your body temperature by adding or removing layers.

Once you start taking longer walks you may need to take some water to rehydrate, maybe something to eat, a spare warm layer or waterproof jacket, sunscreen, a hat, and a small rucksack to fit it all in.

If at some stage you decide to walk in hill terrain, off paths and on uneven ground, then you should consider investing in a pair of hiking boots, waterproof clothing, walking poles and perhaps hillwalking trousers and fleece top. (See part 2, ‘Hiking for Health’, for more details).

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Choose well fitting, comfortable shoes

 

STARTING OUT

Remember, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before you start walking if you haven’t exercised for a long time, are overweight or have a pre-existing medical condition.

There is little to be gained in trying to follow a pre-set training plan when you first start out walking, as we are all individuals and start at different levels and progress at different rates. Aim for a baseline fitness level of 30 minutes walking on level terrain each day, for 5 days a week. This should be at a moderate intensity level, which means breathing deeply and rhythmically, whilst still being able to talk, and not be out of breath.

The idea of starting an exercise routine can seem daunting, so start small and build slowly.  Begin with a 15 minute walk, and see how it feels.

The next day try it again, and if you’re feeling strong add 5 or 10 more minutes. Work up to a 30 minute walk a day by the end of the week.

If walking for 30 minutes at a stretch seems impossible, or you don’t have the time, don’t worry. There is evidence to suggest that three 10 minute walks can give the same health gains as one 30 minute walk, and is a good way to get you started.

Think about walking to work a few days a week, or maybe walk part of the way and catch your bus a few stops along the route. If you commute by car, try to walk a little in your lunch break, it all helps to improve your fitness and gets you outside in the air.

Why not take a friend with you? Walking is a very sociable activity, and a great way to catch up on news and have a chat.

If you like technology you can log your walks with a gps, or use a pedometer.  Try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Most of us walk between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day anyway, so walking 10,000 isn’t as difficult as it might sound.

Remember to stay hydrated, muscles work better and recover quicker if they are properly hydrated. For your 30 minute walk take a small bottle of water with you and sip this as you walk, and drink again when you get home.

 

BUILDING IT UP

If after a couple of weeks you are feeling stronger, introduce an incline into your routine. Walking uphill works the calf muscles, thighs, gluts, and hip flexors, and will burn more calories than walking on the flat. Extend your hikes to include some uneven ground, this will help your balance, and improve your upper body and ankle strength.

Carry a small rucksack with your drink, warm layer, and waterproof jacket inside, the added weight will strengthen your back, core (torso), and legs, as well as burning more calories and increasing your cardiovascular (heart, lungs and circulatory system), fitness.

Consider using walking poles, they need not be expensive, try the discount stores and supermarkets.

Used like ski sticks, walking poles will take some of the strain off your knees, particularly in descent, and contribute to a ‘whole body workout’ as you are using your arms and shoulders as well as your torso, to propel yourself forward.

At the end of your walk do a little light stretching, your calves’ thighs and back will all benefit from this. Don’t stretchbefore your walk as your muscles will not have warmed up and you could damage them at this stage.

If, as you progress, you want to expand your horizons and venture into hillwalking and mountain hiking, consider joining a local walking group, they will often give a trial membership period, and are a great source of advice.

You can also check out part 2 of this blog ‘Hiking for Health’, coming out next week.

 

[i] Wen CP, Wu XF. Stressing harms of physical inactivity to promote exercise. Lancet 2012,

[ii] 380:192–193. NICE. Walking and Cycling: Local Measures to Promote Walking and Cycling as Forms of Travel or Recreation (NICE public health guidance 41, 2012).

[iii] Gregory N. Bratmana,1, J. Paul Hamiltonb, Kevin S. Hahnc, Gretchen C. Dailyd,e,1, and James J. Gross

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA June 29 2015

About Author

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Russell
Russell is the founder and owner of mountaintrails.ie. With over 35 years of mountaineering experience, including expeditions in Europe and Africa, Russell leads many of the trips himself, and is a fully qualified Mountain Leader, has a Rescue and Emergency Care First Aid qualification and is fully insured.

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