We’re better connected than ever before. So why has loneliness become a public health crisis? And how can walking help?
By: Elyssa Campbell-Barr, Illustration by: Sara Mulvanny
If I asked you: ‘What’s Britain’s biggest public health challenge in 2018?’ what would your answer be? Obesity maybe? Alcohol misuse? Smoking? Pollution?
Chances are you wouldn’t say ‘loneliness’. But there’s growing concern among health professionals and politicians that our country is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. And there’s increasing awareness of its catastrophic impact, not just on individuals’ lives, but on our communities, National Health Service and economy.
According to research carried out in 2016, over 9 million UK adults – almost a fifth of the population – feel lonely all or most of the time. The reasons are complex, but researchers point to the rise in one-person households and remote working, as well as declining participation in community groups, team sports and churches, and reduced contact with neighbours. For 41% of people in the UK aged over 65, a pet or TV is their main source of company.
Advances in technology are also a factor. We can now shop, order a meal or do our banking without speaking to anyone, let alone leaving home. Then there’s the ‘social media paradox’ – the more connected we become through our smartphones and laptops, the fewer human interactions we have. And the more we see highlights of other people’s lives on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the more we feel we’re missing out.
The social media paradox may explain why young people in England aged 16 to 24, its heaviest users, are most likely to say they are ‘often’ or ‘always’ lonely. Other groups particularly prone to feelings of loneliness include widows and widowers, people who are newly divorced or separated, disabled people and those in ill health, people with caring responsibilities, migrants, new mothers, retirees, unemployed people and those who live alone. Across all ages and sections of society, women are more likely to report feeling lonely than men.
As harmful as smoking
The list of health risks linked to loneliness is long and frightening. If you often feel lonely or isolated, you have a higher chance of developing heart problems and some cancers, and are more likely to suffer cognitive decline and immune system problems. You’re also at greater risk of depression, anxiety, mental health difficulties, eating and sleeping disorders, and you’re more likely to self-harm or abuse alcohol or drugs. Any of these problems can exacerbate the loneliness, creating a vicious cycle that’s difficult to escape.
People who feel lonely visit their GP more often, need more hospital care and, ultimately, tend to die earlier. After reviewing 70 studies involving over 3.4 million people worldwide, Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues at Brigham Young University in Utah, concluded that social isolation and loneliness are linked with about a 30% higher risk of early death. Addressing the US Senate in 2017, Dr Holt-Lunstad said the mortality risk ‘is comparable, and in many cases exceeds, that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity and air pollution’.
The findings may be bleak, but there is also cause for optimism. In January 2018, the Prime Minister appointed the first Minister for Loneliness, and in October the Government published a national strategy to tackle loneliness in England – with the Scottish and Welsh governments also developing plans to tackle loneliness and isolation.
‘This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far-reaching social change in our country – but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes,’ writes Prime Minister Theresa May in her foreword to A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness. The strategy was born from the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, named in memory of the Labour MP murdered in 2016. Jo was a passionate campaigner on the issue of loneliness, raising awareness of its impact on public health and speaking candidly about her own experiences.
One way in which the strategy seeks to address the loneliness crisis is by ‘improving and expanding social prescribing’. This means GPs and other health professionals prescribing hobbies, community groups, social activities or physical activity, instead of (or as well as) medication, to help ease a patient’s health condition. The government plans to make social prescribing available throughout England by 2023.
A Connected Society also includes a commitment to ‘creating more green infrastructure, in recognition of the important benefits this will provide to health, wellbeing and social connection’. The Ramblers has warmly welcomed the strategy, and we are pleased to see these two key themes within it.
How can walking help?
Just as there is no single cause of loneliness and isolation, so too is there no single solution. But there are things we know many lonely people find helpful: the opportunity to meet new people and form new friendships; regular social contact; exercise; fresh air; and connecting with nature. In a word, rambling.
‘Over 80 years of supporting ramblers has shown us how much people benefit physically, mentally and emotionally once they start walking outdoors regularly. That’s why we’re committed to improving the nation’s health through walking, and why we believe walking has a big part to play in addressing the loneliness epidemic,’ says Tompion Platt, the Ramblers' director of advocacy and engagement.
For most people, walking is the most accessible form of exercise there is. It’s free, local, low-impact and low-risk. No specialist equipment is needed, and routes can be tailored to fitness and mobility. Walking with the Ramblers brings in a social dimension, too. Going on a group walk is an opportunity to meet new people in a relaxed way. There’s no pressure to drink, dance or dress to impress. Conversations are sparked naturally by your constantly changing surroundings, and silences are fine, too.
In England, our Walking for Health project has around 600 local schemes helping over 24,000 people each week get out on short, accessible, sociable walks. In Wales, Let’s Walk Cymru has done similar work. Our Stepping Out scheme of walks for carers and those they care for, founded in Kent in 2017, has already expanded to three other parts of England, making walks accessible to individuals who might otherwise struggle to get out. Many people are discovering these projects through the growth in social prescribing.
Across England, Wales and Scotland, the Ramblers now has over 500 walking groups. Most are open to anyone, but others support walkers with particular needs or interests: younger walkers, disabled walkers, gay walkers, new mums and more. Our website typically carries details of over 5,000 group walks that anyone can join, and our nationwide Festival of Winter Walks each year offers thousands of walks where the public can get a taster of what the Ramblers has to offer.
‘The work of Ramblers' members, volunteers and staff is helping to create happier, healthier communities across Britain,’ says Tompion. ‘By inspiring more people to take up walking and protecting the places we love to walk, we’re tackling loneliness one step at a time.’
I met my wife through walking friends and we both loved the countryside, walking and travel. We had many happy times walking, on day trips, weekends and longer breaks all over the UK and overseas.
After recovering from illness, and on the eve of a perfect retirement, everything changed dramatically. My wife was killed in a car accident. The sudden and tremendous loneliness could have wrecked my life. People don’t always realise that the loneliness is such a serious consequence of loss. I’m fortunate that I was healthy enough to continue to travel and walk.
Since then, I have made many new friends through walking, which has helped me deal with this tragedy. I enjoy leading local walks. I’m also a particular fan of Ramblers Walking Holidays and have benefited a lot from their group holidays. Walking with a group is very sociable, in beautiful surroundings. It’s always interesting to be with complete strangers for a few days, getting to know them and developing a team spirit.
Walking is a wonderfully natural way to meet people. It’s not like a bar or disco where it’s all noise and alcohol. There’s no pressure, and the conversation just flows. You enjoy wonderful surroundings and the company of those who value the same things as you.
I was living in a rural part of Wales, which was great until my personal circumstances changed and I found myself living alone and feeling very isolated. At one point, I was finding that I could come home from work on a Friday night and not see anyone until Monday morning when I went back to the office. It was a difficult time and I felt quite depressed and lonely.
I’d seen something about a local Ramblers group (Tiger Bay) and decided to give it a go. It made such a big difference to my life. Suddenly, I was out in the fresh air regularly and I met lots of new people. I’d go walking with the group on Sunday and it would lift my mood until Wednesday, when I could look forward to another weekend of walking and socialising. There was always lots going on and it really expanded my social circle. Now, my life has changed again. I have a six-week-old son, but I’m still walking. I go out with the baby and the dog twice a day, every day. It’s so easy to do, and a great way of meeting people locally and having someone to chat to every day.
A few of the women in Tiger Bay Ramblers had babies a little while before me and they’ve started a mums’ walking group, going out together with their little ones in carriers. I haven’t joined them yet as my son’s still so young, but I know I will.
I first heard of the Ramblers’ Stepping Out Health Walks through the Carers’ Support service. As I am a carer for my parents, I thought: “What a great opportunity to get out and meet people.” My father suffers from dementia so can never be left alone, and this takes its toll on my mother who has had kidney cancer, liver disease and a small stroke in recent years.
Our first walk was at Hole Park in Kent. I was having conversations about topics other than my caring role and feeling I was a person again, not just a carer. It also gave my parents a chance to chat with other people. Even as a couple, you can feel isolated and lonely.
For me, the walks have opened up new friendships and a once-a-month chance to take Mum and Dad outside in a way that’s relaxing and safe for all of us. Being among such friendly people allows all three of us to be individuals again. It has made a big difference to my mum’s mental health, providing an escape from the relentlessness of caring for someone with dementia.
Stepping Out made me realise how many people – not just carers – feel lonely and isolated, which prompted me and a friend, Sue, to set up a support group on Sheppey called Friendly Faces of Kent. We now have 300 members and plan monthly walks because we’ve seen the value of a 'walk and talk' and how it can provide an opening out of isolation and a gentle introduction back into society.
Do you know someone who could benefit from walking with the Ramblers? With our gift membership, you can give a loved one a year of wonderful walking, companionship and improved health – all for just £35.85. Buy online at ramblers.org.uk/gift-membership or call 020 3961 3232.