Do the walk of life, but don’t let it stop there if you want to improve your mental and physical health, says Andrew Murray
AS A doctor, I’m only too well aware of Scotland’s poor health record.
It’s heartening to see good progress being made in addressing some health issues, like decreasing smoking rates, but there’s a lot more to be done. If I could prescribe a pill to my patients which would decrease the chance of dying early by 30 per cent, on average make them happier, and help prevent more than 40 diseases such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attacks, and some common cancers, there would surely be a queue to get in. How about if it were free, and also good for children?
Well, the good news is that there is such a treatment! It’s not a pill, but rather it’s 30 minutes of your time.
If we all were physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week, as a country our risk factors for these diseases would be up to much much lower – and the NHS budget would have £660 million more to play with. That’s £2m every day.
Any kind of physical activity is great, whether it’s going to the gym or playing a sport, but in reality simply going for a walk is the most practical and achievable activity for the majority of us.
Include a walk as part of your daily commute, take the stairs instead of the lift or walk to the local shops. But try green places too – evidence is growing of the added benefits to our mental health and wellbeing from being in the natural environment, with a 30 per cent reduction in the risk of depression achievable too.
Walking really is good for the brain – I use it to clear my head and spend time with my wife and baby girl Nina out exploring or talking to the ducks.
Walking and talking with a friend is also great therapy and you may be lucky to have walking friends or family to spend time with. But if you’d like company to walk with there are walking groups in most towns across Scotland and I’d certainly urge everyone to think about searching them out.
For beginners the health walks run by local authorities are a good place to get started, and then you can move on to longer walks.
Medical evidence shows that there’s much to be gained from walking with a group, in terms of health outcomes, but a group also gives added incentive to get outdoors on a wet morning.
I’ve been president of Ramblers Scotland – the organisation which represents the interests of walkers by campaigning for access and path development and promoting walking to all – for more than two years now. I’ve been hugely impressed by the Ramblers members I’ve met from the 56 local Ramblers groups. This is a great example of an organisation which is mainly run by volunteers who gain great personal reward for doing so, running extensive walking programmes with no public funding to support them – and keeping active themselves too!
From the 20 year olds in Edinburgh Young Walkers to the more experienced members of South Lanarkshire Older Walkers, they are a great bunch of people, and demonstrate the benefits to be gained from walking in a group of like-minded people. There are also many good things that come from being part of the team that keeps these groups going, whether that’s volunteering to lead walks, organise social events or to be the point of contact for newcomers.
If you don’t know where to go for a walk, your local authority may well have information and you can also download the Ramblers’ Medal Routes App, which has over 450 short, circular walks across the country.
And once you’re walking for 30 minutes a day, remember that this is just the start. I once ran 4,300km from John O’Groats to the Sahara Desert which is quite a long way, but my favourite part was Scotland!
Scotland has plenty to offer – from long distance routes to strolls around your local park or woodland, with mountains and hills of all sizes, and our fabulous coastline to explore too.
Staying healthy means we can live independently longer and enjoy all that life has to offer, and if we’re healthy our resilience is stronger for when we have to deal with the difficulties life throws our way. Each step you take is step to health and happiness, a payment into the bank of good health.
Make that choice to sit less and move more and you’ll not regret it.
• Dr Andrew Murray is a GP, the current president of Ramblers Scotland, and a consultant at Sport and Exercise, University of Edinburgh. He is also a Scottish international distance runner. @docandrewmurray @ramblersscot