07 October 2013 by Michelle Roberts
I’ve been involved with Walking for Health since 2006 when I became a health walks development officer in Hertfordshire. I was new to the concept of health walks so I set out finding out what it was all about by getting out on some of the walks.
As I started to talk to the walkers and volunteers it quickly became clear to me that this unassuming concept of free local short walks, led by the community for the community, was being under-valued and under-sold.
I've lost track of how many times I've spoken to people about how their lives had been changed for the better by walking.
They told me that their blood pressure had dropped since starting the health walks; how they had been supported through a bereavement by their fellow walkers and how the walks gave them a reason to leave the house. They told me how getting out and staying active on the walks had helped them overcome or manage cancer and other long-term health conditions; or how joining the walks for a short break from caring for a loved one was an absolute lifeline. They also talked about how they had gained confidence and now walked much more as a result.
I was completely sold on Walking for Health because of my close contact with so many people who had benefitted from it. But I knew that many health professionals and policy-makers, who were crucial in the equation through encouraging people to start, hadn’t yet bought into it. I realised that more robust evaluations and evidence was needed to convince them.
So along with all the other scheme coordinators across England, I started to monitor our walks to help support national evaluations and promote the benefits of walking. I wanted to spread the message that Walking for Health addressed the needs not just of individuals but for our wider communities.
More and more information and evidence started to emerge about the perils of inactivity but also of the benefits of moderate physical activity. Walking in particular emerged as a fantastic option for increasing activity because it is so accessible and gentle.
And then the national Walking for Health programme gained funding from the Department of Health - progress was being made, albeit slowly! People were starting to make the link between the potential pandemic of physical inactivity and the solution that walking and, more specifically, Walking for Health could offer.
7 years on from when I first got involved, it’s wonderful to see Walking for Health, now supported by the Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support, release Walking Works, a comprehensive summary of evidence for physical activity, specifically walking. This report makes the facts very clear; staying still kills and walking works.
The evidence of the numerous benefits for individuals being more active is unequivocal; physical activity has a significant impact on health and wellbeing by reducing the risk of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and certain cancers by 20-50%. And the benefits to society of more people being active can no longer be ignored.
If everyone in England was sufficiently active it could prevent 37,000 deaths every year and save the economy up to £10 billion in healthcare, premature deaths and sickness absence. Even if someone hasn’t been very active before, 30 minutes in a week is going to make a difference.
So if we now have the evidence for the huge benefits of physical activity, why aren’t we doing more? We really want this report to be a call to action. We want everyone to start making those life-changing steps by getting more active now. And that’s where Walking for Health comes in. It makes it so easy to start getting more active because all the walks are free, short and led by friendly, trained leaders. No equipment is necessary, just comfy shoes, and the walks take place all over England.
It's important for individuals to make the decision to take those steps towards a longer and happier life, but we also need health professionals, health and wellbeing boards and public health teams to help them. We want everyone to read Walking Works and understand the real benefits that could be realised.
Decision makers should use this evidence to prioritise walking and in particular their local community walking programmes like Walking for Health. We want more health professionals to recognise how walking could help their patients and recommend walking. With all our walks listed on our website, and local scheme supplying leaflets, signposting patients to their local Walking for Health walk couldn't be more simple.
Over the years, Walking for Health has quietly been helping thousands of people to lead longer, healthier and happier lives. Please help us, along with the Ramblers and Macmillan, to start shouting that walking works and get even more people to change their lives for the better.
Michelle Roberts is walking for health regional scheme development manager at the Ramblers. Follow her on twitter @MichelleWfH.
Find out more about Walking for Health, including a free local short walk near you, and the Walking Works report.