14 March 2014 by Andrew Milward
Between the mid-90s and the year 2000 Walking for Health had gone from the idea of an Oxfordshire GP to help his patients get more active, to an England-wide programme of short walks.
In the following years many new Walking for Health schemes were set up, and by the time the Ramblers began supporting Walking for Health alongside Macmillan Cancer Support in April 2012, many of them were celebrating their ten year anniversaries.
In Brighton & Hove the sounds of a swing band filled the art deco Ralli Hall for those who attended their ten year event. In Dorchester the Mayor handed out commemorative mugs and made the first cut in a homemade Walking for Health cake. In West Northumberland a bumper turnout of walkers attended an anniversary walk and enjoyed a grand buffet lunch. In Blackpool the Tower Ballroom was the chosen venue, where walkers and walk leaders fox-trotted, tangoed and Viennese waltzed in celebration of their scheme’s decade long landmark.
From the anniversary events I managed to attend, and all the health walks I’ve been on, amazing stories emerge again and again about how walking can make a difference to a staggeringly diverse range of health conditions: depression, social anxiety, recovering from a hip replacement, diabetes, high blood pressure, learning disabilities, regaining strength after cancer treatment.
Walking for Health has made an enormous impact to thousands of lives in its history and continues to do so on a daily basis.
These groups also remind us of the importance of walking’s social aspects. The chats on the walk and in the café afterwards, the long friendships forged, the welcoming of newcomers – all these are the building blocks of the tightly knit groups that gather on these routes around river paths, parks, pavements, and green fields.
And along with new people there are the new places. From these walks even long term residents discover unknown spaces quietly waiting to be animated by chatting voices and plodding boots.
The ten year anniversary events have been a chance to take stock of how far schemes have come, and to reflect on the pathways ahead. By most accounts the future looks bright. In the last ten years a great wealth of new evidence has been accumulated which points towards walking as a key way to avert the physical inactivity crisis that faces the nation’s health.
There will also be plenty of opportunities for Walking for Health schemes to develop further. Not least those provided by the partnership between the Ramblers and Macmillan allowing schemes to access, among much else, Macmillan’s vast network of local services and health professionals with the necessary links to those who can benefit from getting active the most.
It was announced recently that the Ramblers and Macmillan are committed to supporting Walking for Health until at least 2018. With the support that the national Walking for Health team provides, hopefully all these schemes will have a long way to go yet in helping many more thousands get active across the country.
Since its inception Walking for Health has been on quite a journey and doubtless it will continue to prove again and again what an essential public service these walks provide.
Andrew Milward is the Walking for Health Regional Development Officer for the South East. You can follow him on Twitter @andrew_milward