Walk your way back to healthy happiness

Around 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year could be avoided if we were more active. Picture: Neil Hanna
Around 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year could be avoided if we were more active. Picture: Neil Hanna
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You don’t have to join a gym to become fitter, says Helen Todd

AT THIS time of year, indulgence in rich food and alcohol has been positively encouraged in the weeks running up to Hogmanay. Then the inevitable indigestion and hangovers in January prompt us collectively to start thinking about changing to a more healthy lifestyle. Gym memberships soar, but how long does this new enthusiasm last? Soon the guilt has dissipated and we’ve given up on the fitness regime, spending evenings slumped on the sofa.

But each year it becomes ever more important that we all look after our health, and the best thing we can do is to be more active in our daily lives. The evidence is growing as to the major health problems, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which can be traced back to a population which suffers from a chronic lack of exercise. Around 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year could be avoided if we were more active, and almost two-thirds of Scots are now overweight or obese, which brings its own health problems.

Ramblers Scotland president Dr Andrew Murray is a GP as well as an adviser to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and he knows that doing any physical activity at all is good news. In his spare time he is a Scottish international athlete who runs ultra-marathons, but fortunately he’s not advocating that everyone follows his own regime! Instead, he has a simple mantra to help us on the road to fitness – “Sit less, walk more”.

As the representative body for walkers in Scotland, we know that walking is great in so many ways. Scotland’s fantastic countryside is a joy to explore on foot, and we are also aware that those who walk or cycle to school or work are far healthier and more productive. The scientific evidence for the positive benefits of walking for our mental health as well as our physical health is overwhelming.

But to be realistic, we also know that it’s not actually that easy to be active in our daily lives, thanks to decades of designing activity out of our lives. Most of us no longer do hard physical labour, but sit in front of a screen all day at work and all evening at home. Out-of-town supermarkets make it difficult for us to walk or cycle to the shops, and local amenities are disappearing. The lack of serious investment in walking and cycling, such as building safe, segregated paths around and between our communities, means that children are more likely to be driven to school, thus starting the habits of physical inactivity from an early age. The Scottish Government’s new National Walking Strategy is attempting to stem the tide, but as yet there’s little sign of any targets or associated budgets to help it really make a difference across the country.

So we need to make our own individual efforts to sit less and walk more. We can think twice before jumping in the car for a short trip. We can get off the bus a stop early or take the stairs, not the lift. We can have a brisk lunchtime walk, or go for a stroll after dinner. Ramblers Scotland has more than 50 walking groups across Scotland to help you get out at weekends to blow the cobwebs away – and make some new friends at the same time. If you don’t want to walk in a group, our Medal Routes project, linked to the Commonwealth Games legacy, has mapped more than 430 short, circular routes across the country which can be downloaded from our website or via the Medal Routes app.

And don’t forget the “Sit less” side of the mantra. If you think you’re OK because you get out most weekends for a long walk, think again. Evidence is growing on the negative impacts that a sedentary lifestyle has on our health. Even if we meet recommended levels of physical activity by walking 150 minutes a week, the fact that we spend most of the day sitting down is seriously bad news. Being on your feet is much better for your body.

The year of 2014 was momentous in Scotland for many reasons, and especially in terms of sport, with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup. If 2014 was the year of sport, let’s make 2015 the year of physical activity, when all of us get a bit more active. Remind yourself to sit less and walk more. You have nothing to lose (apart from possibly a few pounds!) and everything to gain.

Helen Todd is campaigns and policy manager with Ramblers Scotland, www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland