Walking is the one exercise we’ve all been allowed and encouraged to do throughout this pandemic, no matter whether you live in an area that’s been in lockdown or not.
While gyms in many parts of Australia have been mandated to close during various lockdown periods and many of us have been restricted and must remain within a five kilometre radius of our homes; walking is the exercise we can still easily achieve.
We were encouraged to move together for cerebral palsy during ‘STEPtember’, which has been running for over a decade and to date has raised over $10 million dollars for children and adults with cerebral palsy.
This month is ‘Walktober’, a global initiative that’s been running for over thirty years and designed to encourage us to reap the benefits from getting outdoors each day, for as little as 15 minutes, to do the simplest, most accessible and affordable form of exercise – walking.
From a very early age walking has always been my favourite way to exercise and to get around. I’ve never been a confident bicycle rider, particularly around traffic and growing up on the northern beaches of Sydney, the only form of public transport available are buses and they were few and far between, especially on weekends. If I wanted to go to the beach or visit friends, then I’d have to pound the pavement.
As an adult, I still prefer walking the most as my regular form of exercise because I can do it at any time and at my own pace. I can easily build up my fitness level by increasing the distance or my stride and adding hills and stairs to spike my heart rate.
Benefits of regular walking
Walking doesn’t just provide us with physical benefits; it gives a huge boost to our mental health and emotional wellbeing as well.
According to the Heart Foundation walking for just 150 minutes per week can reduce your risk of heart disease, or from having a heart attack or stroke.
ABC News online posted in 2018 details of a comprehensive study that took data from 49 world-wide studies spanning over seven to eight years, involving more than 260,000 people. This study included research from The Black Dog Institute, UNSW Sydney and Western Sydney University’s NICM Health Research Institute. The results not only revealed that regular physical activity can lift depression; it showed it can actually prevent depression from developing in the first place.
Dr Joseph Firth from the University of Western Sydney explained that doing 150 minutes of exercise a week was associated with a 22 per cent risk reduction of depression, but less time than that could also provide some benefit.
Dr Firth emphasised that exercise needed to be enjoyed and was not necessarily linked to great skill and competitiveness, which makes walking an ideal choice.
Recent studies show that we receive more health benefits if we walk daily even if it’s for a shorter time. Walking fifteen minutes a day is actually better than walking an hour twice a week. The ideal is to walk at least 30 minutes or more a day.
Walking for fitness
If you’ve not been doing much exercise and you’re keen to get fitter then walking is a great way to start, however, it’s still best to ease into it.
It’s tempting to go all ‘gung-ho’ and throw yourself into it but you’re better to start with a 5 or 10 minute walk to the end of your street and back or maybe take a short walk in your lunch break or park your car at the end of your shopping strip and walk up and down instead. You will be more inclined to stick with it if you slowly build up your time and pace as you start to feel fitter.
I remember when I was struck down with a terrible bout of glandular fever in 1990 and I spent months and months on end flat on my back barely able to walk at a snail’s pace from my lounge to the front door before feeling totally exhausted.
I started off slowly walking to the end of my street and back, having to stop several times along the way to recover. I persevered and slowly over time I could manage to walk there and back without stopping. Once I felt confident enough I ventured a little further and after many more months I had built up my fitness level again and was able to walk many kilometres in the same time my original stroll took me to complete.
Walking and managing your weight
The Mayo Clinic says regular walking can help maintain our weight and if we increase our pace it will help us lose weight. They describe moderate walking as around 100 steps per minute and that pace will help maintain good overall fitness and our current weight.
If you want to lose weight, the Mayo Clinic suggests walking for 30 minutes or more per day and increasing your pace to 130 steps per minute.
There are some great phone apps and activity trackers available to measure the amount of steps you take. I use a free app called Map My Walk. I can see at a glance my pace in minutes per kilometre, my average pace, the distance I’ve travelled, the amount of steps I’ve taken (and we are encouraged to walk 10,000 steps a day), along with the duration and number of calories I’ve burnt. It displays a map of where I’ve been and even breaks down my pace and elevation over my entire walk. It serves as an inspiration and motivation to keep going.
To increase your heart rate while walking, try swinging your arms with slightly bent elbows.
Interval training is where you spike your heart rate with faster walking or short sprints in-between your usual walking pace or going up hills and stairs in-between flat walking. This is proven to burn more calories and improve your cardiovascular fitness.
I know it can be hard to get motivated to get out the door for a walk sometimes and there are so many other things that can easily get in the way to distract us. Setting myself goals or chores or a mission I want to achieve, gives me a purpose for my walk and a destination to aim for and forms a part of my everyday life.
Discovering the outdoors on foot
Another great inducement to walk is to explore your local area and take in the fresh air and sunshine, along with some picturesque views. There are plenty of walking trails in and around most cities and towns available to download no matter where you live throughout Australia or you can map out your own walk.
For some years I was lucky enough to go caving, canyoning, abseiling and bushwalking with some of the members of the Sydney University Speleological Society (SUSS). SUSS is the oldest caving club on mainland Australia and they have trips to suit all levels of experience, including uncoordinated novices like me. I still cherish the fantastic bush walks I took with them through many parts of the Blue Mountains, Newnes Plains and especially through the Wombeyan caves.
You might be lucky enough to live near the ocean as I did for a while when I was living in Wollongong. Walking along the water’s edge from South Beach to the Port Kembla coal loader and back most mornings, feeling the sand between my toes and the sea breeze across my face, not only helped improve my fitness but it made a huge impact on my mental well-being and helped me cope with my very stressful and demanding job.
If you live in Sydney or planning to visit you don’t have to venture very far from the city to be in beautiful bushland or to be enjoying the ever-changing vista of Sydney Harbour.
One of my favourite walks is along the harbour foreshore, which I’ve been enjoying with fresh eyes of late while being a ‘tour guide’ for a great mate of mine. She’s only been in Australia for a few years and is keen to see as much of Sydney as possible.
There is now a paved walkway along the entire harbour waterfront from Garden Island in Woolloomooloo, through Sydney’s Botanic Garden, which is a fabulous walk on its own, past the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay, the Rocks, Barangaroo, Cockle Bay, and Darling Harbour. You can continue even further along the water’s edge through Pyrmont and Jackson’s Landing then around Blackwattle Bay, where the new Sydney Fish Markets is currently being built. The walk along the foreshore continues through Glebe and Rozelle Bay in Annandale and finishes at Rozelle, where the 19th century tall ship James Craig is moored and well worth a tour inside. The entire harbour front walk is around 8 kilometres but you can do any part of it depending on the time you have and how fit you feel.
You might be surprised how many stunning places your community has to offer when you venture outdoors on foot. Check with your local council for walking groups and trails in your neighbourhood.
Improving your health can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other; all you need to do is take that first step.
Susie Elelman AM – Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster