Walking and Health

Walking for health Walking is such a natural activity, both as means of getting from A to B and as a leisure pursuit. However, given our increasingly busy lives and hectic lifestyles, many of us are not walking enough to benefit our health.

In a recent survey in Northern Ireland, 23% of adults were classed as sedentary (ie they had not performed any activity of at least a moderate level, lasting 20 minutes, on at least one occasion in the previous seven days) and only 30% were meeting the current physical activity guidelines.

How much physical activity should we do?

Lack of physical activity is one of the biggest causes of illness and death in Northern Ireland. Increasing physical activity levels across the whole of our population is a major aim for those with an interest in health. Active people are more likely to live longer and healthier lives and to retain their independence throughout life.

The Chief Medical Officer recommends that we should be doing at least 30 minutes of "moderate intensity" physical activity, most days of the week. Moderate intensity activities include brisk walking, cycling, gardening, dancing and heavy housework. This 30 minutes of moderate physical activity does not need to be done all at once. It can be done in separate 10 minute bouts which may be more achievable for some people, but they should still be encouraged to progress to 30 minutes of continuous activity.

Walking has been described as a near perfect exercise. Compared with many sports and other recreational pursuits, walking:

  • is free and you don't need special equipment;
  • is accessible, regardless of age, income or location;
  • is easy to start doing, build up gradually and continue long-term;
  • is within the physical capabilities of most people, and is a realistic goal for inactive people;
  • combines all the physical benefits of activity with an opportunity for social contact and support;
  • with a group can make you feel safer, more confident and helps motivate;
  • can be easily incorporated into our daily lives;
  • can be enjoyed safely and has a low risk of injury;
  • is a great introduction to a healthy lifestyle including healthy eating, stopping smoking and reducing stress.

People are more likely to continue walking long after a structured walking programme and, given that walking is a near perfect exercise, let's get more people walking more!

What level of walking is needed to benefit health?

Walking will only contribute to the maintenance and improvement of health if it is of sufficient intensity, is carried out with sufficient regularity and is performed for a sufficient length of time. It is important that a Walking for Health programme encourages people to walk at an appropriate level to achieve this.

However, any walking is better than none. People may need to build up their level of activity gradually and, for some previously inactive people, gentle strolling is a good start.

The level of regular walking required to gain health benefits is given below:

How Often?

  • Most days of the week (at least five)

At what pace?

Brisk walking (which is different for everyone). Walk at a pace that makes you

  • breathe a little faster
  • feel a little warmer
  • feel your heart beating a little faster

You should still feel comfortable and be able to talk.

For how long?

Build up to 30 minutes a day, perhaps initially in 10 minute sessions, and ideally building up to a single 30 minute walk.

Why walking works

Physical inactivity has been described as the "silent killer of our time". Lack of physical activity is one of the biggest causes of illness and death in Northern Ireland and, as a consequence, increasing activity levels is now a major health priority.

The following paragraphs outline the benefits of walking in relation to some of the major health problems in Northern Ireland:

Physical activity and cardiovascular disease

Diseases of the circulatory system (this includes heart attacks and stroke) killed over 2,400 people in Northern Ireland in 2008. This is more than any other cause of death, including all cancers. Physical inactivity is one of the major risk factors for coronary heart disease. Inactive and unfit people have almost double the risk of dying from coronary heart disease than more active, fit people.

Every year, approximately 150,000 people in the UK have a stroke. Most of those affected are over 65 years of age. Not only is stroke a major cause of death in the UK, it is the most common cause of severe disability - with more than 250,000 people living with disabilities caused by stroke. Regular physical activity is known to help protect against the risk of having a stroke.

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Physical activity and cancer

Research has shown that physical inactivity increases our risk of certain cancers and indeed may be the cause of approximately one eighth of bowel cancers and over a tenth of breast cancers.

Being active, however, helps to protect against some cancers. One study of 40,000 men showed that those who walked or cycled for an hour each day were 16% less likely to develop cancer, and people who walked or cycled for just 30 minutes a day were 34% less likely to die of cancer. Being active has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 40%, with evidence of reductions in bowel cancer, prostate and womb cancers also seen in those who are regularly active.

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Physical activity and obesity

The number of children and adults who are overweight or obese is increasing at an alarming rate. This trend seems likely to continue unless major changes are made to diets and lifestyles. To reduce weight effectively, our energy expenditure (ie how many calories we burn up each day) must exceed our energy intake (the amount of calories we consume in our food and drink).

Whilst a healthy diet can reduce our energy intake, the vast majority of us need to increase our energy expenditure through regular physical activity. Regular walking combined with healthy eating will not only reduce weight, it is also necessary to maintain weight loss. Walking just one mile can burn up 100 calories; walking two miles, three times a week could reduce your weight by 14 pounds in three to four months.

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Physical activity and diabetes

Diabetes UK: www.diabetes.org.uk

Linked to the rise in excess weight and obesity is a rise in type 2 diabetes. Regular physical activity has a protective effect against developing type 2 diabetes, lowering the risk by as much as a half. People who have diabetes also benefit from regular physical activity as this helps to lower blood sugars and maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Physical activity and older people

Typically, people tend to become less active as they get older but this needn't be the case. Having an active lifestyle into old age has been shown to maintain mobility and independent living. Older people who become less active miss out on the beneficial effects that physical activity brings to both physical and mental health.

Falls are a major cause of death and disability in older people. Being regularly active is essential for maintaining muscle strength and balance and has been shown to reduce the incidence of falls.

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Physical activity and osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is the gradual weakening of our bones with age to the extent that they are at risk of fracture from relatively minor injuries. The health benefits of regular physical activity on bone strength have been shown in both men and women up to the age of 90. To keep our bones healthy and strong, activity should be maintained throughout life. For post-menopausal women in particular, the most effective form of exercise to strengthen bones is impact exercise, including walking.

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Physical activity and dementia

Dementia affects over 700,000 people in the UK with numbers rising considerably and the condition costing an estimated 17 billion a year. There are various types of dementia and, although their causes are not fully understood, research has shown that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease by up to 40%. Taking part in regular activity, as part of a group, can help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of dementia.

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Physical activity and mental health

Mental health is an area that people aren't comfortable discussing and is often overlooked. Our mental health and wellbeing is an essential part of our health and quality of life. With mental health problems very prevalent in our society (affecting as many as one in five people), regular physical activity has an important part to play in improving our mental health and wellbeing.2 Physical activity is known to improve mood and helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Physical activity can be considered for both its preventative and therapeutic effects on mental ill health.

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