The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have disrupted our daily routines, with many of us losing out on incidental exercise. Co Mayo mum Mary McHugh is coming to the end of her journey to lose the 14lbs that she gained and she shares the secret to her success
Did we ever imagine we could miss the commute? Being rammed onto a bus seat in a stuffy top deck or spending an hour getting intimate with a stranger’s armpit aren’t likely candidates for nostalgia.
However, we are discovering the full cost of extended working from home. It is increasingly problematic that we can no longer just switch off from our jobs — work lurks on laptops in kitchens and mobile phones are on nightstands at all hours of the evening. We are also missing out on the vital, almost accidental, exercise we were getting on our way to work, while at work and coming home from work.
That exercise can add up to a difference of up to a stone, depending on the length of your normal journey. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health examined the relationship between “active commuting”, defined as walking, cycling or taking public transport, and BMI (body mass index).
It found that those who switched from driving to active travel experienced the largest reduction in BMI, but there was also a reduction for those who took public transport. Losses ranged from an average of 2lbs over two years to over 15lbs over two years for those with one-way commutes of over 30 minutes.
The compound effect of less exercise and being inside fridge orbit all day gave rise to one third of the population gaining weight during lockdown. The ‘Covid stone’ meant that over winter many of us found ourselves wearing jogging pants far more often than we were actually jogging. And so, come the spring, many look to a diet rather than exercise to alleviate the symptoms of snug pant syndrome.
The evidence increasingly suggests that in the long-term, slow, incremental lifestyle changes, including increased physical activity, may be more sustainable for losing weight, and crucially, for keeping it off. And perhaps people are starting to come around. Since lockdown, more of us than have been hitting the road.
Research conducted by Ipsos MORI for Sport Ireland to measure the impact on sport and recreational walking during March and April found that 83pc had walked in the previous seven days. But can walking actually induce weight loss. Could it shift the Covid stone?
That was the question Mary McHugh asked herself last November, when like many of us she found the scales had tipped further than she would have liked. Mary, a 49-year-old mother of two, says her weight has remained relatively stable at roughly eight-and-a-half stone, between a size eight and 10.
She had always walked but after having her children in her late 30s and early 40s, she started running, inspired by her brother and his wife who are both marathon runners. She says: “Through age, my back got worse and the disc went. After that, running wasn’t really an option anymore. When you’re recovering from a disc injury you’re limited in what you can do. I started walking after six weeks and I went out three mornings a week.
“It was a nice, gentle way to ease back into exercise. I would go out, walk for a bit, and assess how I felt when I came back. As I felt the strength build up in my back, I’d go a bit further. If I felt, ‘oh there’s a bit of pain there’, I’d slow down until it improved. I built up from three mornings to five.
“I loved that you could walk whenever you wanted to walk, you weren’t having to travel to a gym or tied down to a training time. If you move your arms and turn side-to-side you’re getting your abs so you’re moving every part of your body. I built up to 5km five times a week. I was doing the 5km loop in half an hour. At that point it’s quite a nice workout. You feel warm when you get back.”
The convener of the Gortjordan walking group in Co Mayo had fully recovered and fit when lockdown hit. And caught between working, homeschooling and helping the family, there was little time left over.
She adds: “It was hectic, trying to fit everything in. The whole day was reorganised. Previously I would have had my time when the kids went off to school, that was where I planned my day. Even though they were at Zoom school all day, you had to be there. Then there was making dinners. It was relentless.
“The months stretched out from March, April, May, June, July… I would have gone out walking a bit but not much. I suppose I would have felt my belly getting a bit bigger but then you’re pretty much staying in leggings for months.”
She hopped on the scales in October and was horrified to have gained a stone.
“Unbelievable,” she recalls. “I said, ‘right, we’re coming into the winter here. April is around the corner. I need to move’. I needed to prioritise my health. I put my mind to it. I decided to cut out the snacking and extra food I had been eating. It was a weekend. I set the alarm for the first thing Monday morning and went out.
“Obviously in the depths of winter it can be a bit tough heading out but once you’re out you start enjoying it and then you feel great. I did 5km five times that week. I still had a glass of wine on Friday evening because I felt like I deserved it after the week.”
And while many self-regarding gym-goers and would-be athletes are often dismissive about walking, like any other exercise it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.
Dr Noel McCaffrey is consultant in sport and exercise medicine at Cappagh Hospital. He says that as a form of weight-bearing aerobic exercise walking has multiple benefits.
“Aerobic exercise tends to be associated with the reduction of blood pressure and fasting blood glucose and reduced risk of developing diabetes and metabolic conditions. If you want to prevent hypertension, then one strategy is regular aerobic exercise, which could include walking.
“If you get hypertension, a good treatment for it is regular aerobic exercise including walking and the same could be said for adult onset diabetes. Obviously it depends on the pace you go at. If you ramble along and stop and talk to the neighbours and look at the flowers — which is good in itself for other reasons — you might not get the same metabolic benefits of the same cardiac challenge. Improvement in any of our body systems depends on challenging both systems and that brings about an adaptation which means to improve the ability of those systems.
“That applies to the function of the cardiovascular system, the function of the lungs, burning fuels, muscles, all of these processes undergo an adaptive response to exercise, which is beneficial.”
One of the motivations mentioned by Mary in tackling weight gain is that she was conscious of heading into her 50s carrying extra weight.
Menopause and ageing can have a considerable impact on BMD (bone mineral density). Losing bone density increases fracture risk as we age. Some studies put menopausal BMD loss at 10 to 20pc. BMD in early adulthood, explains Dr McCaffrey, and then falls as we age. It is impacted by a number of factors including physical activity, genetics, nutrition and medication but embedding weight-bearing exercise from adulthood can mitigate the rate of BMD loss.
He adds: “Walking has a very beneficial effect in mitigating the rate of bone mineral loss if you walk every day versus not. You’re more likely to lose bone mineral if you’re sedentary than if you’re walking, all else being equal.
“If you walk regularly the impact on the ground and the forces transmitted through the bones are healthy. So In terms of a form of exercise that can be sustained long-term, walking is brilliant.”
But, can walking shift the Covid stone? Mary has no doubts. She has only 4lbs to go.
Check out GetIrelandWalking.ie
Health & Living