Walking works

You can hardly switch on the TV, open a newspaper, browse the internet or listen to the radio without encountering a story about inactive UK or obese Britain.

The statistics associated with these sorts of stories are mind-boggling – best encapsulated by the following: "if current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2020, the average British citizen is expected to become so sedentary they will expend only 25% more energy per day than if they spent the whole day sleeping". I mean, seriously. Come on average British citizen, wake up! Oh you are awake - it’s just hard to tell right now because you’re not eating.

Walking in Blackheath It’s not even that the definitions of activity are aspirational or unrealistic - adults aged 19–64 should aim to be active daily, with at least 2½ hours of moderate activity such as walking over a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. One way of achieving this is through moderate activity of at least 30 minutes a day on at least five days a week.

But you know what, only 60% of men and 50% of women report that they achieve this. Physical inactivity has an impact comparable to smoking, which means that in the UK almost 17% of all deaths are due to inactivity. The list of health problems that being inactive contributes to seems endless and deeply depressing. Increased risk of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes... not to mention mental health and wellbeing.

Then again hardly anybody knows about these recommendations, let alone what they are. A 2012 poll of 167 London GPs found that not a single one of them knew. It’s a good job those people aren’t responsible for our health or anything... oh.

The solution is not complex or expensive. As NICE says, “Walking is the most likely way all adults can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.” Walking is the most accessible physical activity, and already the most popular. It has the greatest potential to grow, particularly among people disproportionately affected by low physical activity levels and poor health.

Walking is a free, gentle, low-impact activity that requires no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere and at any time. It is easy to start slowly and build up gradually, as well as being the ideal exercise to fit around everyday life. It therefore addresses many of the reported barriers to being more active, such as lack of time, money, poor health and physical limitations. It's also accessible to people from groups who could most benefit from being more active, such as older people or those on low incomes.

And the easiest way to start walking is Walking for Health, England’s largest network of health walk schemes. It launched in 2000, and is now run by the Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support.

NietzscheThe 600 schemes across England offer free, short walks led by friendly, trained walk leaders. Walking for Health overcomes a recognised barrier to becoming more active by providing opportunities for social contact. This is the top motivator for many participants and a mental health benefit in itself. Walking for Health is particularly successful at keeping older people active.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously said: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. As the first existentialist philosopher who was interested in the enhancement of the individual while challenging the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality, he ought to know. (He also had a splendid moustache but that probably proves more about his vanity than his belief in the idea of life-affirmation.)

The authors Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie wholeheartedly subscribed to the Nietzschean creed. Both regularly walked alone for miles, working out plot lines and character development for their many novels. Dickens through the grime and gloom of the city and Christie across the bleak and desolate moors of the west country. Indeed it is surprising that either found any time to put their thoughts down on paper.

Musicians too are Nietzschean disciples. Sheffield native Richard Hawley loves that as an inner city dweller he can walk to the countryside and “find some strange and beautiful places that are accessible to everybody”. Peter Gabriel used walking round Solsbury Hill to not only provide the autobiographical backdrop for his first single as a solo artist but also to manage the transition away from supergroup Genesis.

Walking in New CrossBrowse any number of MP biographies and you’ll find many list walking among their likes and hobbies. Angelsey MP Albert Owen goes as far as saying, “To me it is a form of exercise and relaxation second to none. I have always had a passion for coastal walking.” Taking an MP on a walk is not only a great way to meet them and inform them about all the wonderful things the Ramblers do, it also provides them an opportunity to meet their constituents in a more relaxed and informal atmosphere.

Practising what he preaches, Des de Moor, author of Walking Works, recently led a Blackheath Ramblers walk attended by local MP, Heidi Alexander. I popped along with the 30 or so usual attendees and was surprised on two unrelated accounts. Firstly, that Des prefers the Dr Hook version of ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, whereas all right thinking persons in my experience rate the Marianne Faithfull version as superior. Secondly that Heidi lives on the street where I grew up. (Although many will query whether I’ve ever grown-up.)

From a personal point of view, and with respect to the Oxbridge elite that dominate our politics, Heidi was a breath of fresh, normal air and we could do with more women of her background in the Eton-educated, testosterone-fuelled corridors of Parliament. Extend an invitation to your MP to join you on a Ramblers walk and prepare to be surprised. Walking works on so many levels.

Walking Class Hero's playlist:

We Walk - R.E.M.
We Walk the Same Line - Everything But the Girl
These Streets we Walk - Kabanjak
We Will Walk - Matisyahu
Solsbury Hill - Peter Gabriel
Down in the Woods - Richard Hawley
Ballad of Lucy Jordan - the Medicine Show
Ballad of Lucy Jordan - Marianne Faithfull

Walking Class Hero is a regular blog contributor. Find out more about him, including his previous blog posts. You can also follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero.