01 July 2016 by Roberta Antonaci
Physical inactivity is killing us. It’s a stark statement but the statistics speak for themselves, with a lack of exercise now causing 1 in 6 deaths in the UK.
Fortunately there is an answer, and it lies at your feet.
Over the last few years, the physical and mental health benefits of walking have received increasing attention from academic researchers, policy makers and health professionals alike. For example, a recent study published by the University of Cambridge found that a brisk daily 20-minute walk reduces an individual’s risk of early death by 25%.
A recent review of the benefits of group walks confirmed the wide range of health benefits, from reductions in blood pressure, resting heart rate, to a significant increase in physical functioning.
We recently launched our own report with Macmillan Cancer Support entitled Walking Works. We found that 150 minutes of walking per week (the ‘dose’ of moderate physical exercise recommended by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers), could save 37,000 lives each year. It could also lead to nearly 300,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes. There’s also growing evidence confirming the mental health benefits of walking. The mental health charity Mind found that country walks can reduce depression and increase self-esteem. Walking helps us appreciate the natural world and connect with nature and our locality.
Studies like these confirm what many of us know from our own direct experience: walking is good for you, for your physical and mental health, and for your personal and social wellbeing.
The real question should now be: how do we promote it?
What role can governments and local authorities play to get people active so that we can lead healthier and happier lives?
Firstly, walking needs to be placed at the centre of cross-departmental national and local strategies. The many benefits walking provides supports ambitions across a variety of policy areas, including health and transport. However progress is stymied by lack of coordination. A more joined-up approach would help unlock the potential of walking to improve lives.
Secondly, decision makers need to consider redirecting parts of existing budgets into the infrastructure that allows people to walk. Our public footpaths, bridleways, and byways together with local green spaces, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are a priceless national asset. They provide vital opportunities for people to exercise and enjoy the natural environment.
And thirdly, we need more research to understand the motivations and barriers for people to walk more. At present we lack the data relating to demographics and also people’s experiences of walking which would allow local government and the third sector to work in partnership to design new ways of encouraging people to walk and to keeping walking. Individuals and communities need to be involved throughout this process, so that they can help shape innovative ways to promote walking.
To cash-strapped councils, they may appear to be liabilities, but rights of way form an infrastructure network with potentially massive benefits. Linking the maintenance of the path network to creating opportunities for low cost, entry-level physical activity, investing in path maintenance can represent a public health saving, rather than a highways cost.
Moreover, most problems are fixable if we work together. Walkers, landowners and civil society all have a part to play, as do the Ramblers. Councils have willing allies in the task, especially if new ways of working with volunteers can be found.
We want to be at the heart of these efforts, where together with local authorities we can build a country designed for walking and help everyone get on their feet.
Last year we launched the Big Pathwatch, Britain’s largest ever survey of Britain’s rights of way network, from footpaths to bridleways to byways. During its six month duration it ran, over 3,000 walkers (over 60% of whom were new to the Ramblers) walked these rights of way and reported back – via the Big Pathwatch app – on the condition they found these paths in, recording both good and bad features. Every path in almost half of the total area of England and Wales was walked, with over 100,000 features collected.
Working together, using intelligence such as the Big Pathwatch to target our efforts most effectively, we can ensure that the unique resource we have built up over centuries can continue to give value and enjoyment long into the future.
Soon we will be publishing our findings and launching an updated Pathwatch app so that people can continue to report path problems and we can help local authorities to monitor what it happening on their rights of way network, keep our paths open and help people lead happier and healthier lives.
We are keen to hear from you. If you have any comments or questions, please let us know in the comments below.
||Roberta is our Health Policy and Advocacy Officer. If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, you can email her directly through Roberta.firstname.lastname@example.org