Wednesday 29 January 2020

Walk your way to a healthy body and mind

Walking is quickly gaining pace as a top exercise form, thanks to a vibrant community of walking evangelists who are spreading the message of its powerful health benefits

Mum-of-four Mary Coghlan has been leading walking groups of women for nearly 30 years. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mum-of-four Mary Coghlan has been leading walking groups of women for nearly 30 years. Photo: Damien Eagers
71-year-old Bill Redmond has found walking life-changing. Photo: Maura Hickey

Kathy Donaghy

You don't need to tell 71-year-old Bill Redmond from Duncormick, Co Wexford, about the life-changing benefits of walking. He is living proof that this, the most pedestrian of exercise forms, can change your life.

Four years ago, Bill collapsed, was rushed to hospital and before he knew what was happening was undergoing surgery on his heart to have two stents put in.

It was a major shot across the bow for Bill, who'd been a fisherman all his life. "I was the skipper on boats and there wasn't a lot of space for walking. Throughout my life, I'd never walked. I'd never considered myself unfit but I carried a bit of weight, I smoked too much and I enjoyed a drink too," says Bill.

As part of his rehabilitation after his surgery, Bill started to go for walks. "I was so weak at the start and my legs were not up to it. Walking was totally alien to my body but I started to progress. I joined what was called a strollers' group I found through the Irish Heart Foundation. I just saw a notice in the newspaper about a group and thought I'd join in," he says.

71-year-old Bill Redmond has found walking life-changing. Photo: Maura Hickey
71-year-old Bill Redmond has found walking life-changing. Photo: Maura Hickey

Every Monday evening at 7.15pm, Bill would meet up to 15 other walkers at the GAA grounds at Rathangan in Wexford. They'd walk for three-quarters of an hour on a track around the GAA grounds and gradually Bill began to notice changes. He began to build walking into his day, going as far as the village of Duncormick, a mile from his home.

While some people may scoff and believe that unless you're pounding the pavements by running or clocking up the miles on a bike, you're not really exercising, walking has some serious health credentials.

Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers. According to researchers at Harvard University in the US, it even counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Harvard researchers looked at 32 obesity-promoting genes in over 12,000 people to determine how much these genes actually contribute to body weight. They then discovered that, among the study participants who walked briskly for about an hour a day, the effects of those genes were cut in half.

As well as strengthening bones and improving immune health, walking can also boost our mental health by giving us a chance to take a break from the stresses and strains of daily life. And if you walk with friends or in a group, you not only increase your chances of getting your vitamin D from being outside in the fresh air, you get the benefits of socialisation too.

Despite being a late convert to walking, today Bill goes out every evening with his Springer Spaniel, Jack. He says he doesn't measure the distance travelled but usually walks for an hour and 20 minutes and would miss his daily walk if he didn't have it now.

"The walking groups are great but I'm a bit of a loner and I like my own company. I can walk through the countryside and take it all in, or see how the crops are doing. I'm stronger now and better with the walking. It has been an immense benefit to my life. Apart from being out in the fresh air, my leg muscles are stronger and I'm fitter. I may not look it but I feel it," says Bill.

His wife Mary and his five children are amazed at his progress and never thought they'd see the day their dad would become almost evangelical about his daily walk. "It was never something I envisaged for myself. I never thought I'd become a walking addict. It's never too late to get active and you'll never see the benefits until you do it. When you do it, you'll say 'why didn't I do this years ago?'.

"The day I had the heart attack, there were a lot of people who put in a hell of an effort to keep me alive. I felt I had to do something for myself. What I decided to do for myself is walking. It's my success story," says Bill.

Walking wasn't a word in Frank Greally's lexicon. His name is synonymous with running - and at 66 years of age he continues to edit Irish Runner magazine. However, Frank has recently been converted to the powers of walking. This autumn he is set to launch what he calls a "crusade" with Athletics Ireland to get people walking as well as running.

"If we can put as much focus on fitness walking as we do on running, then we can see a brand new wave of fitness activity leading to a healthier Ireland. One of my aims is to have fitness walking available on prescription through every GP in the country by end of 2018," he says.

Frank believes that walking with purpose is just as stimulating as running. He says people can be intimidated by running so much so that they don't get off the couch. But Frank believes that by embracing walking, people can become fit for life.

"A lot of people rush into a running programme. They'd be better to start with a walking programme and build endurance into their training. Walking can be as purposeful as you want it to be and it can be every bit as good as running once you put a bit of structure on it," says Frank.

Walking is at the heart of the achievements of adventurer Pat Falvey, who has led teams of people to the coldest, highest and often most inhospitable places on the planet. The first Irish person to summit Everest from both the Nepal and Tibetan approaches, Pat says that 90pc of what he does is walking.

He says a mistake people make is to think they have to rush around, proving they're doing things fast. "People say to me that I do extreme stuff. But extreme stuff is done in a matter of pace. I'm not running; 90pc of everything I do is walking, not fast, but slow," he says.

Inspired by an 85-year-old man he met at Everest Base Camp, Pat has set up the Forever Young Club for 50- to 90-year-olds, to keep people being active throughout their lives. "You can walk till you die. No matter what age or fitness level you're at, there's a level to suit you. Walking is one of the most therapeutic and healthiest things you can do. It's a natural endorphin and will make sure you stay better, longer," he says.

Mary Coghlan has been leading walking groups of women for nearly 30 years now from her home in Kingswood in Dublin. A mum-of-four, Mary (63) says walking is part of the fabric of her daily life and that if you stick with it, you will see the benefits.

A former events manager for Crumlin Hospital, Mary - whose brother Eamonn is a three-time Olympian - has literally walked all over the world including India and the famous Camino de Santiago. However, she started out simply by going for walks trying to lose weight after having children.

After losing three-and-a-half stone through diet and exercise, Mary did a course in DCU on the benefits of walking and on posture and technique while walking. She started up a walking group that meets every Tuesday and Thursday at Kingswood Heights in Dublin, and 26 years later, it's still going strong.

"Walking doesn't get the recognition it deserves. For weight loss, if you stick with it, you will see results. If you get the frequency, intensity and time (FIT) in, you will see yourself improving and reap the benefits. As well as the physical benefits, you'll sleep better and feel better about yourself," she says.

"If you're not fit, you're not going to run a marathon. But get out and start slow and build up. Don't worry about who's ahead of you," says Mary.

It seems that when it comes to your health, you can't do much better than simply putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis. British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan summed up the health benefits in 1898 when he said: "I have two doctors: my left leg and my right."

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