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A Walk In Progress – Arran Holcombe

A healthy, yet smart walkthrough for the year ahead…

Walking is simple, free and one of the easiest ways to get more active, lose weight and become healthier. The NHS have good reason to promote this often-overlooked form of exercise. Walking improves risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, inflammation and mental stress. Moreover, walking can also help to protect against dementia, peripheral artery disease, depression, colon cancer and even erectile dysfunction. I should clarify, if you can’t walk, there are many other ways you can move to increase your heart rate. I’ll do my best to provide some tasteful examples throughout. In any case, I sense perhaps now you’re about to put down this magazine to go for a brisk 10-minute walk or similar. Go ahead; I’ll be here waiting for you when you get back…

If you’ve continued to read, I’ll do my utmost to encourage you out of the door by the end of this article. If you’ve just returned – welcome back – you haven’t missed anything.

In 2018, Dr. Michael Moseley presented a TV program called, ‘The Truth About Getting Fit’. As part of proceedings, Professor Rob Copeland from Sheffield Hallam University conducted an experiment, comparing a group walking 10,000 steps per day (roughly 5 miles) to a group walking 3,000 steps per day (1.5 miles). The difference: the second group were expected to take three brisk 10-minute walks a day. That is they were expected to walk at about 3 miles an hour, which is faster than a stroll. The experiment concluded that whilst the second group spent less time moving, they spent more time getting out of breath and increasing their heart rate, meaning that they benefited more from the exercise. This likely followed on from a report by Public Health England, which found that although the evidence for 10-minute bouts of walking is limited, it can improve fitness. A meta-analysis of available studies showed improvement in aerobic capacity, leading to greater ease of performance of everyday physical activities and improved quality of life.

The idea of walking 10,000 steps a day is not rooted in science. It was developed as part of a Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer called Manpo-Kei – quite literally meaning ‘10,000 steps meter’ – in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Since then, activity tracking software and hardware has often rewarded owners for reaching this milestone. Even I remember a Fitbit with 10,000 flashing on the screen. Yet, I didn’t always reach this. On some days, I’d only walked 3,000 steps, which for some may lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy or unnecessary worry. To clarify, what’s more important to us here is not what, but how and when we are moving.

“Take the stairs”, we hear our healthy conscience say to us. This is an old favourite, shared by professional athletes and homemakers alike. A Canadian study of seventeen healthy males with an average age of 64 determined that climbing stairs was harder than walking or lifting weights. Peak exertion was also attained much faster climbing stairs than walking, which is why you often feel out of breath if you’ve walked (or run) up the stairs. A Harvard Alumni study found than men who average at least eight flights of stairs a day enjoy a 33% lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary – better than the 22% lower mortality rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day. I myself love to give the monkey-bars a good go at the park, in place of the stairs to increase my heart rate and breathing intensity!

Given that the last couple of studies quoted only men, it’d be pertinent to mention two things here. One: a vast majority of scientific study is based on study of males, and two: the intensity of a female exercise regime should ideally modulate in time with her infradian rhythm (i.e. the menstrual cycle). Save your intense workouts for your follicular and ovulation stages. At the menstrual stage, any intense exercise could backfire and turn on fat storage. It’s really important that women consider engaging only in light exercise such as walking and gentle flexibility exercises – the perfect excuse to relax!

My family and I often go out for walks in the village, and we certainly explored our local area well from April 2020. It’s a shame that it took us nearly four years to find something that was so close. Suffice to say we’ve certainly reaped the benefits of walking in nature. Of the many studied avenues of nature’s impact on the human body, are it’s impacts on stress reduction. One randomised controlled study in 2018 concluded that walking in nature resulted in lower cortisol levels than did nature viewing. Walking in nature also improved mood more than watching nature scenes or physical exercise alone. Couple this with exposure to good microbes on surfaces and in the air in woodlands, leading to the potential for increased potential for gut microbe diversity, and we start to understand why walking in nature really can improve human longevity.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, other, perhaps unknown, benefits of walking include counteracting the effects of weight-promoting genes; taming a sweet tooth; reducing the development of breast cancer; easing joint pain and perhaps most importantly: boosting immune function. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. Furthermore, if they did get unwell, it was for a shorter duration and their symptoms were milder.

“OK – I get it, Arran – I should probably go for a brisk walk more often. Now what?”

The NHS recommends increasing your walking distance gradually if you’re able to walk but not very active. Furthermore, if your joints are a problem, you could check whether your local swimming pool holds exercise classes, in order that water can help support your joints as you move. At the opposite end of the scale, those who lead highly active lifestyles could benefit from relaxing their muscular and central nervous systems from intense cardiovascular and strength training, by walking briskly for 10 minutes, 3 times a day for a couple of weeks.

Forming a habit as we know now can take a varying amount of time depending on the individual, though according to one study, an average of 66 days (over 2 months!) The best habits stick with time, commitment, encouragement and support. To that end, I would recommend: incorporating movement into part of your journey to work; walking to the shops instead of driving or doing a regular walk with friends up to groups of 6, at safe, physical distance. Of course, remember to check tier restrictions where you live for up-to-date guidelines. If you’re walking alone during daylight, consider walking to music, though keep one ear out listening to the world around you! The most important part of following all of this up, is checking in with others who’ve committed to doing the same as you. Sharing experiences and encouraging others will go a long way to establishing healthier lifestyles, with some even arguing it will be a pivotal part of future preventative and functional healthcare.

I hope this gives you some incentive to fit a purposeful, less-pressured amount of brisk walking into your day. Your body will thank you, and I will congratulate you. I look forward to seeing you out on the trails in Cranleigh to cheer you on. Whilst we may well be at different points in our journey, collectively, we’re all a “walk in progress”.

Arran is a music educator, who established Surrey Health Collective in 2019 with local health practitioners, as a non-profit group that brings the community together to learn about and share our experiences in health creation. Search for us on social media using: @surreyhealthcollective or visit our website: www.surreyhealthcollective.org

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