For many, winter is the time to wrap up snugly in front of the TV by a blazing fire, tucking in to comfort foods washed down with a cup of tea or a whiskey. The days are short and the weather is cold and miserable. The temptation to go out and fill our lungs with fresh air is minimal. However, for a fortnight over the Christmas break from 19th December to 3rd January 2016, the British walkers’ charity, Ramblers, is organizing the Festival of Winter Walks. The idea is to encourage people to do more walking and to make walking paths safer. Throughout England, Scotland and Wales there will be hundreds of group walks taking place – some short for novice walkers and some challenging for the experienced hikers. Some will be themed and may require fancy dress and others will be aimed at families. The website offers choices so people can select the most suitable one for them.
So what are the health benefits of leaving the cosy fireside, donning warm clothes and stepping outside?
Walking can be done at whatever pace suits you so you can gently increase your cardiovascular health. The ideal is to walk at a pace which raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless but you should still be able to talk. At this rate walking is a moderate intensity aerobic activity and, according to a Californian study, can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as much as running. This large piece of research involved studying 33,060 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study over a period of six years. The results showed that the same energy used for moderate intensity walking and vigorous intensity running resulted in similar reductions in the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and probably coronary heart disease. By gradually increasing the time and rate of walking your cardiovascular health will grow.
Prevention of illnesses
As well as the study mentioned above, various other research trials have demonstrated that exercise is an important factor which reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes e.g. data from the Nurses’ Health Study in America suggested that 90% of type 2 diabetes in women can be attributed to five main factors: being overweight, lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, smoking, and abstaining from alcohol. Similar research has shown similar results for men.
There are also proven links between cancer prevention and regular exercise. There have been many studies looking at the link between colorectal cancer prevention and exercise and they have supported the fact that people who increase their physical activity can reduce their risk of developing colon cancer by 30-40% compared to people who are not active. There are similar results with regards to the links between physical activity and breast, lung and endometrial cancers.
Increased circulation means that more blood gets to the brain and a US study showed that people who walked regularly for a year showed growth in the hippocampus or memory centre in the brain. Furthermore, it has been discovered that walking 20 minutes a day reduces the risk of developing dementia by 40%.
Some people are reluctant to walk as they fear their joints will hurt and cause osteoporosis. In fact weight bearing exercise such as walking helps strengthen bones and stop bone loss so prevent osteoporosis.
Weight management and toned muscles
Did you know that there are 165 calories in one glass of sweet or cream sherry? Or that one mince pie is 360 calories? This is the time of year when most of us allow ourselves some extra treats and, consequently, it is often the time of year when people put on weight. January can be a depressing time as some of us feel fat and poor after the excesses of Christmas. Taking part in the Festival of Walks or going walking on your own is one way of managing the weight problem and, as it is free, does not add to the economic problem. It is reckoned that a brisk five mile walk by an 11 stone person will result in 400 calories being used. Besides which, if you are out walking you are less likely to be absent-mindedly tucking in to the large tin of Quality Street given to you by Aunt Betty as you watch TV.
Regular walking tones muscles in legs and buttocks. To intensity this effect it is good to walk on mixed terrain such as pavements, muddy footpaths, pebbly beaches etc. Going up hills pushes the muscles further and causes more calories to be used.
Like any form of aerobic exercise walking causes endorphins to be released into the bloodstream and these boost mood. Various studies have shown that regular, moderate-intensity exercise to be as effective as antidepressants in cases of mild to moderate depression.
As well as the endorphins the sensations of being in the countryside can help people feel good. The winter in the UK is often given bad reviews whereas, in fact, it can be spectacularly beautiful. Imagine a woodland walk in snow – every surface white, animal and bird footprints visible, the muffled sounds, the change in the smells – it is like the world has altered overnight. Even if you only get to your local familiar park it will seem different and new. A sunny frosty day is one of winter’s gifts when you just have to look round you in awe – the light is different to summer light and, perhaps because the days are short, all the more special. Even dull or rainy days can be enjoyed with the right clothing – feeling wet and cold is miserable.
Furthermore, walking with others is sociable and a good way of making friends whatever the weather.
Have a look on the Festival of Winter Walks website to see the details of walks near you. Make sure you have suitable clothing, especially footwear that is comfortable and waterproof. Hats and gloves are useful and, if you are an asthma sufferer, it is a good idea to use a scarf to help warm the air before you inhale. Start with small walks and gradually extend them to increase your fitness and stamina. Whether you join a group, go with family, take a dog or two or just go on your own, it really doesn’t matter as long as you get outside and start moving.