01 June 2020 by Dr Nick Summerton
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Walking improves the way our bodies work. If you keep active you are much less likely to get heart problems, strokes, diabetes, dementia, or even cancer. A good walk strengthens bones, lowers blood pressure, improves our thinking and makes us feel better.
If you are particularly out of trim, then you will have the most to gain by even a small increase in exercise such as going for a short walk. For those of us who do - unfortunately - catch coronavirus, it seems that if we are fitter, we can fight off the illness better.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many people’s mental wellbeing. Not only have anxiety levels risen across the population but we have also lost many of our support networks and activities.
But a lot of research has shown that exercise lowers our stress levels and improves the quality of our sleep. Also walking can help to treat symptoms of depression in addition to preventing it starting in the first place.
Some people with underlying health conditions have been advised to be particularly careful about any social contacts. Many of my patients with lung diseases, heart problems, cancers or diabetes now worry about ever going outside again for a walk. I try to explain that a lot of people with such conditions feel much better and do much better if they continue to exercise while on treatment.
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Coronavirus will be with us for a while. Even once some of the current restrictions on movement are relaxed, we will still need to keep apart until a reliable vaccination programme is in place.
But walking and talking again in a group ramble will give us all a boost. We just need to think carefully how to design walks to maintain social distancing. Perhaps this will be about going out in smaller numbers and walking on wider paths. Also, some of us will need face masks and everyone must remain obsessive about hand washing, catching coughs and sneezes and not touching eyes or faces.
In addition, we should try to plan outings that might boost our immunity. Walking in sunshine will increase our vitamin D levels and this can help protect us against infections. It has also been shown that experiencing a forest atmosphere will raise the levels of natural killer white cells in our blood.
We all have a hard journey ahead and some difficult choices to make. But a healthy lifestyle is all about balance and finding this is particularly important now.
Dr Nick Summerton is a GP and Ramblers member who sits on Walk magazine’s Ask the Expert panel
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