Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Walking for Health

I've recently been getting involved in my local area's Walking for Health scheme. I've done a couple of walks with one of the groups and discovered some lovely places on my doorstep that I never knew were there. Last week I spent a day attending a training course to become a Health Walks leader. This is a voluntary role so I can feel all altruistic and magnanimous whilst getting to know new people, finding good walking places near my house and, most importantly, getting some experience leading adults. As most of my walk leading experience has so far been with teenagers, I'm keen to build up some age-group variety before I apply for my Walking Group Leaders' qualification. And it's good to experience a completely different style of walking to that which I usually do myself or with groups of Duke of Edinburgh Award youngsters.

So what is Walking for Health?

Walking for Health is England's largest network of health walk schemes, helping all kinds of people to lead a more active lifestyle. I'm quoting from my training manual there.

The scheme was originally set up in 1995 by a doctor who ran the scheme for his patients as he believed in the benefits of walking for general good health. By 2000 the scheme had been adopted nationally and was run by the British Heart Foundation and Natural England. That Natural England were one of the first sponsors probably explains why it's only ever been an English scheme and hasn't reached the rest of Britain. In 2002 Natural England pulled out and the funding was taken over by The Ramblers and Macmillan

Why these two?

The Ramblers is probably an obvious sponsor as their aim as a pressure group is to promote and facilitate walking. Macmillan might seem to be a less likely candidate but their statistics show that out of two million people with cancer, at least 1.5 million of these are not active enough. Research is showing that those who are active (albeit it in a reduced way) throughout their treatment have a higher and faster recovery rate and lower rate of the cancer recurring. The  routine promotion of (gentle) exercise isn't something oncologists are currently known for, but Macmillan are trying to change this. 

But I don't have cancer ...

There is also some evidence to show that active people and people who get into the outdoors (walking's a great way of combining the two) are less likely to develop cancer in the first place.  

Is it only for people with cancer / who have had cancer / who want to avoid cancer?
No, walking is also recommended for a whole range of physical ailments and mental health issues. Regular physical activity such as walking can reduce:

  • coronary heart disease by 20-35%
  • type 2 diabetes by 20-35%
  • colon cancer by 30-50%
  • breast cancer by 20%
  • hip fracture by 36-68%
  • depression by 20-30%
  • alzheimer's by 60%

The list goes on. It can help with lowering blood pressure, increasing levels of 'good' cholesterol (HDL), managing weight, coping with stress and anxiety, recovering from heart attacks and strokes ...

In fact, a former Chief Medical Officer of England said, If a medication existed which had a similar effect to physical activity, it would be regarded as a 'wonder drug' or a 'miracle cure'.

How many people don't get enough regular activity in the UK?
Around two-thirds of all people are not meeting the UK Chief Medical Officers recommendation that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.  Ideally this is split over at least five days a week with sessions lasting at least 30 minutes. For children, the recommendation is at least an hour a day.

What is moderate activity?

Moderate activity makes you breathe harder and your heart beat faster, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. Walking is the ideal moderate activity. (As an aside, on the course we were told to use the word 'activity' rather than 'exercise' as although most people aren't against the idea of getting fitter, the concept of 'exercise' is scary and off-putting - it's too easy to imagine a gym full of bronzed and toned bodies and superfit people who you won't fit in with at all and be completely intimidated by)

So how can people be encouraged to take part in a Health Walk?

Firstly, they have to be accessible and to ensure that they are four things need to be considered:

  • Location - walks are available in towns, city centres and villages throughout the country. The Walking for Health website will show the walks that are available in your local area. They all start and finish near car parking and on a public transport route.
  • Timing - Walks are held at different times on different days of the week including weekends. The lengths of the walks differ too.
  • Cost - Health Walks are free. As they are local it shouldn't cost much (if anything at all) to get to the start and finish point.
  • Ability - some walks are only a mile long and last just half an hour. Others are 3-4 miles in length and last 2-3 hours. All are on relatively easy terrain.

Although the point of the walks is to raise everyone's heartbeat, the walks are not so strenuous that it becomes impossible to hold a conversation. So the opportunity to meet new like-minded friends, increase your social circle, even get to know people if you're new to an area is all part of the attraction.

So far, I've really enjoyed the walks I've taken part in. Although not challenging, they haven't been as short or slow as I originally expected, though I have only done the longer ones which appeal to the slightly fitter walkers. Over the next few weeks I have to shadow a current Health Walks leader and then lead a walk of my own. After that I'll be let loose to help England get fitter!

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