Helen Todd: Summer walking

On a hazy, lazy, mid-summer’s day it’s hard to imagine, but at the time of the winter solstice most people in Scotland enjoy less than 7 hours of daylight a day for several weeks. No wonder then, that the summer is so anticipated, bringing over 17 hours of daylight for Edinburgh and Glasgow – and almost 19 hours in Shetland! A whole new day begins after you get home from work, with several hours available to do something useful, whether that’s going for a walk, painting the front door, or doing some gardening!

Helen doing her beach exercises

The ‘simmer dim’, the wonderful northern twilights that go on forever, are a joy to the lover of the outdoors. There isn’t the pressure of time, the worry of daylight running out, that you feel in the winter. You can tackle longer walks knowing that you’ll not be returning in the dark, no matter how slowly you walk. In winter, there’s not much margin for error on a mountain day – no time for wrong turnings, or deciding to go on to that extra top, unless you’re sure you’ve calculated your walking time correctly. In summer you can lounge around on top of a hill, enjoying the view, having a chat over a long lunch, and taking photographs.

And we really do need to make the most of these daylight hours to be more active, before we draw the curtains and coorie doon in front of the fire over the winter. Scotland, at a population level, is pretty inactive, with just 39% of adults meeting the minimum recommended levels of physical activity, and it’s a similar situation across the rest of the UK too.

The Scottish Government has finally woken up to the fact that 2,500 people a year die prematurely in Scotland due to physical inactivity and this is only set to rise, with greater strain placed on the NHS to deal with more diseases which could have been prevented. They have decided that the answer is to get more people walking further, and more often, and the National Walking Strategy was launched in June with input from Ramblers Scotland as stakeholders in the process. The recommended minimum levels of 150 minutes of physical activity a week are quite modest but it’s a start in the right direction, and a call to everyone to sit less and walk more. The 10-year strategy aims to turn Scotland into a country with a walking culture, where everyone chooses to walk for short journeys and regularly for pleasure, and to start designing our environment to make walking the most convenient option.

But before Ramblers members start feeling too smug about how they easily meet the physical activity guidelines, new research is suggesting an entirely different approach to measuring our activity is needed. Rather than looking at our bouts of activity, we should actually try to decrease the amount of sedentary behaviour in our daily lives. Apparently, it’s the length of time we spend sitting in front of the computer, TV, or in our cars – not to mention sleeping – which is a growing concern for doctors in terms of raised risk factors for a whole range of diseases. Increasingly, studies are finding links between sedentary behaviour and heart disease, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes, even when people are meeting the weekly activity guidelines.

This was brought home to Ramblers Scotland staff recently when we took part in a workplace challenge, competing against teams of employees from around the country with each of us counting our steps with a pedometer. We felt pretty confident that we’d be in the top few groups, that we might even win! After all, we often enjoy walks at lunchtime and then go for a good walk at the weekend. What a shock it was, therefore, to see from our pedometers just how sedentary our lives really are, despite these bursts of activity. Like many office workers, I have an inactive journey to work by car for 25 miles, and then spend my day sitting down. This means that hours will go by without me moving at all. I easily meet the weekly physical activity targets thanks to my weekend Munro-bagging tendencies, but these bursts of energy are interspersed with long bouts of sedentary behaviour.

Beinn Dearg sunset

It makes sense that we need to keep moving regularly. Think of other guidelines we are all encouraged to follow, such as our units of alcohol; experts prefer you not to save up all your weekly units for a mad binge on Saturday night, but instead to enjoy a single glass of wine on several days of the week. And we all know that eating 5 oranges in a sitting doesn’t mean you can tick off your fruit and veg quota for the day!

So it is particularly important that we all look at ways to build more exercise into our daily lives. At work, keep getting up for a stretch, and try standing to work at your computer, or having meetings outdoors while going for a walk. At home, do the ironing or some exercises while you watch TV. And best of all, pause before you grab the car keys and consider whether you could actually walk, cycle or take the bus instead.

Summer evenings are the perfect way to get into new habits of increased activity. Lots of Ramblers groups already do take advantage of the longer daylight hours to have evening walks in their programmes, and if your group doesn’t, then try suggesting it! And of course, don’t stop as the nights draw in – find a friend and make an evening stroll a regular habit. You have literally nothing to lose – apart perhaps from a few kilos! – and plenty to gain.

Helen Todd is the campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures or follow her @helenrambler.