“I know walking’s good for me… but I hate it!”
So ended the brief conversation some seven years ago with a friend of mine who was trying to persuade me to go on another embarrassing ‘short’ walk with the aim of ‘making me feel better and get fitter’.
The subject of walking – among other topics – came up again this morning as I sat in the sunshine with my ‘Black with a Splash’ (strong coffee) listening to the Christian church service on Radio 4. The speaker mentioned his recent walk along the Camino de Santiago, and the lessons he’d learnt during his five and a half weeks.
My mind went back four years to the first time I heard about this legendary pilgrimage route. I was chatting with two friends in London’s Hyde Park. We were discussing my continued weight loss, my changing attitude to walking, and what my next Physical Challenges should be. One of the suggestions was that, like many of their friends, I too should walk the Camino.
In 2010, weighing in at 23.5st, I hated walking with a vengeance!! Yes I knew it was good for me; I knew all the oft-quoted benefits for my health – especially obesity (I had a BMI of 52) and Type 2 diabetes (which I was quickly heading towards)… but I hated walking. Even on short flat walks I would sweat profusely and my upper and lower back, legs and hips would all start aching within minutes. I would also get breathless and be unable to hold a conversation with whoever had managed to persuade me to embark on yet another embarrassing walk.
Fast forward six years and I now enjoy a good hike, especially when it combines uplifting scenery, invigorating sea views, great company…and some cider!
So what made the difference? What caused my turn around in attitude? Take a walk with me through some of my ponderings…
The right time
With any new physical activity, the easiest way to put yourself off is to go ‘too far, too fast, and too quick’.
There are many components to walking: distance, incline, terrain, speed, complexity of route etc. One by one you need to build up all of these elements gradually.
I started by going for a daily steady 15-min circular walk on pavements near my home. This removed the anxiety about safety and navigation, and it meant that I returned home feeling tired, but also exhilarated that I’d achieved something positive. I then looked forward to the following day’s outing. I timed the walks so that I could recover physically before having to be anywhere else. Often I went out either at dusk or in early morning light – that way no-one was around to stare at this fat, unfit person pounding the streets!
As my confidence and fitness levels grew, the walks became longer, the terrain more varied (parks, woodlands, moorland etc), and I started to vary my speed: adding in short brisk bouts of walking helped to boost my heart rate. More on the health benefits of walking later.
The right kit
Although you don’t need to splash a lot of cash, getting the right kit does make a HUGE difference to the comfort and enjoyment of walking.
Walking socks are a good start – cushioning your feet, keeping them warm in cold weather and cool & dry in warm weather. At first I balked at the expense of ‘just another pair of socks’, but quickly found the investment paid off.
Walking boots are another great investment, especially if you plan to walk on uneven surfaces and for longer distances. Most are waterproof (ideal for our great British weather!) and come with grippy soles – great if like me you’re a bit hesitant on descents or loose terrain.
Walking poles are wonderful for giving you that extra bit of support (especially for arthritic hips and knees) and boost your confidence. They need a bit of practice with to get maximum benefits, but there are many videos online to help with technique. You can read some guidelines here.
Layers / waterproofs: weather is unpredictable! Always be prepared with a lightweight showerproof jacket and a few thin layers which can be easily added / removed as necessary. I get very hot walking, but soon start to cool off when I stop to admire the scenery for a minute or two. Wearing clothes that wick sweat away from the body make such a difference.
The right route
There are many guides describing different walks. Walking books (borrow from the library or buy some) and magazines are a great way to start out. You can also search online for walking routes. The guide will grade each walk on the length, terrain and navigation skills required.
I would also recommend getting a quick lesson in map-reading and compass skills. Even if you don’t venture off a path, it’s a fascinating skill to learn… and you’ll make some new friends on any course you take.
The right people
Having the right company on a walk can turn it from good to great. Not only does the friendly banter help the sometimes difficult miles pass by easier, but you can also share snacks, nature tips, selfies, and map-reading skills in the case of getting lost! There’s also the safety aspect to consider: having a phone with you is great – so long as you’ve got a signal. Having a couple of friends with you (one for company and one to go get help if needed) is really useful.
I joined The Ramblers Association as a great way of meeting new friends and discovering new walks. Often there is a shorter and a longer walk available most weekends. They also arrange walking holidays and social events at Christmas. There is also a Christian Walking Club if you wish to combine your faith with your walking!
The right distractions
In the early days of my walking, when I was still struggling to enjoy it, it was suggested that I listen to podcasts or audio books to help pass the time. I also made up a play list of my favourite tracks to help keep my mood positive.
As I started to enjoy my walking, the distractions became enhancements. I would take along my camera and reignite my passion for nature / scenery photography. My friend Mark has also got me hooked onto Geocaching, which engages the brain while walking.
I find the weather can be a great distraction too. I enjoy walking in the rain – probably just as well really! I find the rhythmic patter on my waterproof, the squelch of my boots in mud, and the constant cleaning of my glasses helps to break up the monotony of a boring stretch of path. When the sun shines, the warmth on my skin is lovely… not to mention the health benefits of a good dose of Vitamin D. Walking in snow is interesting, and icy paths – pictured here on the horseshoe route up to Pen-Y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons in Dec 2012 – make for a very challenging walk.
The right nutrition
If you’re going on any walk longer than 30 mins, you need to take water and something to nibble on. Longer hikes need a bit more sustenance. Planning is crucial – even if only how to get to the pub for lunch! As I sweat so much when hiking, I take a mix of water, orange juice and a tiny pinch of salt. Homemade electrolyte drinks are so much cheaper than commercially available ones, taste better (in my humble opinion) and help to avoid cramps and drops in hydration and energy levels.
When thinking about food and nibbles, if you’re watching your weight, make sure you don’t eat more calories than you’re burning off! At a steady 3.2km/hr (2 mph) the average person will burn 75 calories every 30 minutes – that’s only ONE finger of a KitKat bar! A mix of plain nuts, seeds and dried fruit are ideal. Some people hike on a few packets of Haribo sweets! Of course, there’s always the famous Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake if you’re hiking in the beautiful Lake District.
As a specialist personal trainer, I help clients with a wide range of health issues to become more active in order to help relieve their symptoms and even reduce the progression of their condition. Clients also report an improved quality of life. Walking is an EXCELLENT form of activity. It can be as low or high intensity as you want. It can be easily adapted to suit your level of fitness and experience. It is low cost and can be undertaken any time, any place, any where!
Heart – the cardiovascular system helps to supply the whole body with oxygen and nutrients. However, conditions like Hypercholesterolemia (high levels of cholesterol in the blood), Arteriosclerosis (where the walls of the arteries become hard, damaged and lose their elasticity), Atherosclerosis (hard plaque formation in the arteries) and Hypertension (high blood pressure) can greatly alter the effectiveness of the system.
Staying active with walking can improve cholesterol levels by raising the levels of good HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and lowering the bad LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Walking increases the blood flow into the muscles and also helps to lower resting blood pressure readings (especially in people with mild to moderate hypertension).
Lungs – our respiratory system enables us to inhale oxygen into our body and enables carbon dioxide to be exhaled from our body. It is fully developed by the time we’re about 25 yrs old, and only reaches full maturity (in respect of gaseous exchange, power and force) when we’re in our 40s! Asthma and COPD (Chonic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) are two lung conditions that can affect our breathing. Walking helps to improve our respiratory fitness by working the muscles involved in the breathing process. It helps us to inhale and exhale more lung volume, and helps to prevent further respiratory disease. As there is no long-term cure for COPD, management of the condition is critical. Keeping active helps to raise self-esteem too.
Endocrine system – this works closely with our nervous system to help keep our bodies in homeostasis (the balanced, ideal state of existence). Two main endocrine conditions are Diabetes and Obesity. There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 is an auto-immune disease caused by insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas being killed by the body. Type 2 is often lifestyle-induced, and results from the body becoming increasingly resistant to insulin, or not being able to produce enough insulin to effectively reduce blood glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes is closely linked to obesity which is the leading cause of insulin resistance. Increasing your levels of activity stimulates the effect of insulin and this helps with the uptake of glucose from the blood and into the muscle cells. Increasing muscle tone helps to improve the metabolic balance within the body, which can, with a good balanced diet, result in weight and body fat loss.
Joints & muscles – Osteoarthritis (OA), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Osteoporosis (OP) are three chronic conditions which can be very debilitating. Research has proven that an increase in activity can make a real difference to all three conditions. Clients are often hesitant to increase their activity levels because they think the increased initial pain is a result of further joint damage. However, so long as you don’t exercise joints affected by an RA flare up, keeping the joints moving will improve the long-term range of movement achieved at each joint. Strengthening the muscles around each joint will improve stability and balance. Walking is great for people with these conditions as it provides a low-impact activity that is still effective at reducing symptoms. Combined with bone-loading exercises at critical joints (wrist, spine and hip), people with OP can also reap the benefits of walking.
Mentally – last but not least, walking is good for people who experience depression, stress and anxiety. Just getting outdoors can lift our spirits, and the rhythmic nature of walking is also relaxing. Any form of activity releases our ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins, and it has been established that an increase in activity levels can be just as effective as taking antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. Walking can also provide a time to ‘get away from it all’ and clear our heads. Listening to relaxing music or a meditation podcast while walking can further boost the effect. Walking within a group can help with social interaction and build confidence and self-esteem.
So… I hope this blog has encouraged you to get out there and give walking a try. Start short and just keep going.
See you out there on the footpaths, in the woods, along the coastline… and within the next few weeks on the summit of Pen-Y-Fan!
The NHS Choices guidelines on taking up regular walking.
Route planning guide: WalkIt
A route and fitness planning site: MapMyRun
The Walk England route guide
A great website for wheelchair users
And an equally great one for people with buggies
The website with Walking for Health details
The Ramblers organisation
And details of where to walk in the UK’s many National Parks