Walk the talk - this year's big fitness trend
You don't need costly gym membership or stylish attire to get fit, just head out the door and go for a walk - it's free, easy, social and this year's big fitness trend
*Sponsored by Healthy Ireland, a Government of Ireland initiative
We always look for new and novel ways to shift the festive pounds in January, hence the glut of diet books at the top of best-seller lists and the sudden interest in the latest fitness trends.
Bolstered by our New Year's resolutions, we book in for high-intensity cardio classes in fitness franchises and expensive body blitzes in boutique studios. Indeed, we get so caught up in the hype that we forget that there is an alternative that doesn't cost a penny - and it's literally on our doorstep.
Social media might give the impression that fitness requires a gym membership, a wardrobe of stylish workout wear and a high-octane attitude, but the statistics show otherwise. Walking is in fact the most popular form of physical activity in Ireland, with approximately 2.3 million participating weekly.
Ireland's temperate climate and bucolic scenery makes it one of the best walking destinations in the world. The 2015 Irish Sports Monitor, which surveyed over 8,500 respondents, found that 64.8pc took part in recreational walking, nearly five times as many participants as personal exercise, which was the most popular sporting activity.
And these numbers are set to increase with the launch of the Get Ireland Walking campaign. The Sport Ireland initiative, supported by Healthy Ireland and delivered by Mountaineering Ireland, aims to promote the culture of walking "to all members of society regardless of age, location or ability".
Speaking at the launch of the event, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, said: "The campaign message is simple; mall steps can make a big difference to your health, you just need to start. And while this may not always be easy, when you do make the healthy choice, it's always the right one."
Walking has wide-ranging benefits to physical and mental wellbeing, but this campaign also wants to get people walking for recreation and transport, as much as it wants to help them discover the many trails and walkways in their locality.
"We have carried out interviews for research purposes," explains Programme Manager, Jason King. "And interestingly, when we asked teenage girls why do they walk, the majority stated that it was for fitness and to clear their head. In contrast, the majority of the boys stated that they walked for transport and to get from A to B.
"Men over the age of 50 really saw the therapeutic benefits of walking in relation to their wellbeing. All viewed walking in green spaces as a contributing factor to improved health and wellbeing. Both women and men identified the social benefits of walking and placed this high as one of the main reasons why they walk.
"Those who regularly walk value its true impact on health and wellbeing," he adds, "and thankfully those at government level and policy-makers see this too."
But can walking compete with better-faster-stronger fitness trends and pavement-pounding runners? "We know walking is good for us," says King, "but do we view it as exercise? Yes, but a conscious, consistent effort is what's missing.
"We generally follow new exercise trends if not engaging in team sports, often paying high membership fees. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favour of all types of physical activity, but walking, in my opinion, is the best free, and most easily accessible, form of physical activity. It is a catalyst for so much."
Fitness expert and Independent columnist Karl Henry agrees. "I am walking's biggest fan," he says. "It's free, it's easy on the joints and anyone of any age can do it.
"The fitness industry is cyclical," he adds. "Last year it was all about HIIT [high intensity interval training] and how hard you can push yourself. Now it's all about LISS [low-intensity, steady-state] exercise. All of a sudden walking has a funky new name - it's going to be this year's big thing but it's actually nothing new.
"You have to be working hard enough to get the benefits from it," he explains. "You've got to be getting at least slightly out of breath. In terms of numbers, you're looking at 6.4km an hour or 4 miles an hour," he said.
Interested? Visit gov.ie/healthy-ireland for more information.
The Get Ireland Walking website (getirelandwalking.ie) has a list of walking groups and local sports partnerships across the country. Here we meet just a few of them…
Get Ireland Walking
● While men are more likely to take part in sport and exercise, women are more likely to take part in recreational walking (70.7pc of women and 58.7pc of men). However, there has been a notable increase among men aged under 25 years taking part in recreational walking since 2013.
● While there are persistent social gradients in participation in sport and exercise, with high income earners and those with a third level education more likely to take part, these differences are less severe for recreational walking.
● Older adults are more likely to take part in recreational walking than sport and exercise with 62.8pc of men aged over 65 years taking part and 67.3pc of women aged over 65 years taking part weekly.
● The majority of participants walk three times a week while over 1 in 5 (22.4pc) walk seven or more times a week.
● Most people walk for at least 30 minutes for each walk for recreation they take while 54.8pc of participants walked for more than 30 minutes during at least one of their walks
● 43.9pc of respondents walk for transport, an increase of 3.7% since 2013. The increase in walking for transport is driven by adults aged 25 to 44 years.
(All information from the Irish Sports Monitor 2015.)
The community wants you, but you make the choice to step out into it
Mother-of-one Majella Fennelly is the County Walking Facilitator for Laois Sports Partnership.
"I love walking and I like to connect communities, so when Laois Sports Partnership started the Get Ireland Walking programme, it ticked all my boxes.
"We're coming into our third year now and we've developed many groups in Laois that are still going strong.
"These groups aren't for people who want to walk fast and hard. Some of the groups have developed into that but, for the most part, we are starting off at one or two kilometres.
"There are people who want to do triathlons and Runamucks but there are also people sitting on the couch who haven't been active or interacting within the community for a long time.
"Our leaders are very patient. They understand that not everyone wants to go fast. We have a leader and a sweeper, and the sweeper will walk as fast as the last person. Nobody gets left behind.
"The social aspect is the winner. One of our leaders in Portarlington, Donie Molly, started with a Monday evening walk. That group now meets on Tuesday and Thursday, and they do a big walk on a Sunday.
"One of the ladies that I walk with was very low and was carrying a lot of weight when I met her initially. She has gone from struggling to walk 1km to completing the Dublin Mini Marathon, and her confidence has really soared.
"Another gentleman in his 70s has been walking with us for a year. Before he joined the group, he would have been very isolated and not really going out too much throughout the day.
"We look at people's routines and ask 'How can we tap into it?' Last year we wanted to encourage older adults to come out walking so we incorporated mass. We noticed that they were coming out of mass at 10am on a Wednesday morning so we asked them to do some exercise with us for an hour afterwards. They absolutely loved it.
"We reached 8,500 people last year through physical activity and connecting communities. However, when I am out with my leaders in the various areas, I tell them that it doesn't matter if they have one person or 100 people on their walks. If they can make a difference with one person then that is a fantastic achievement.
"There are people in their houses feeling lonely, thinking, 'There is nobody out there at all', but there really are people out there. There really is a community that wants you but you make the choice to step out into it.
"People from all walks of life mix on these walks. You could have a Garda, a housewife, a cleaner and a school teacher walking together. It changes people's perceptions and opinions."
'We know what's going on all over the world but we don't know what's happening two miles down the road'
Lifestyle coach and father-of-five Liam Fleming is the founder of Siul Eile, a walking group in Co Tipperary
"There are lots of walking routes in Clogheen but there was a time when I wouldn't meet anyone while I was out on my walk. That's what triggered it for me. I thought, 'Why aren't the local people out here? These tracks are literally on their doorsteps.' It drove me to get the group up and running.
"The first Siul Eile group started in early 2016 in Clogheen and the surrounding areas. Since then we have done over 200 walks, attended by over 700 individuals (40pc of local population) who between them have walked over 40,000km.
"Having already organised a few walks to promote the area, I seized on an opportunity through the GAA's Healthy Club Project. Through this the Couch to Mountain Top walking program arose. This involved four walks a week for 12 weeks, where we explored the Knockmealdowns extensively, and also part of the Galtees.
"Now that we could see that the social side was a very important aspect of Siul Eile, we set up the Howshecuttin' program which involved night-time walking in the dark months of October and November. The word was spreading and 50 or 60 people were turning up every night in the depths of winter to go walking on quiet country roads but, more importantly, to have a chat with a neighbour.
"Modern Ireland has become very fast-paced with people rushing from one thing to the next. The opportunities to meet and chat with your neighbours are becoming few and far between. The church and pubs were once socialising pillars of communities but numbers nowadays going to either has dwindled dramatically. Even on a daily basis human interactions are becoming less and less as supermarkets and banks direct their customers to self-serving machines rather than a bank clerk or till assistant. We know what's going on all over the world but we don't know what's happening two miles down the road to our neighbour.
"In September 2016, as a result of the large numbers on our walks, we were accepted onto the BNest Social Enterprise Incubator Program in UL. Over the following six months, Siul Eile was shaped into a social enterprise.
"As part of that programme we are looking to spread the impact of Siul Eile to other communities around the country. Since participating in the BNest programme, we have set up a further three Siul Eile groups, in Clonmel, Ardfinnan and Inch, Tipperary. All these groups have eight-week programs starting in the second week of January and anyone can drop into any of the walks at any time."
'I’ve always known that nature has healing properties'
Psychotherapist and mother-of-one Trish Shannon runs a community walking group in Co Waterford.
“I walked in the past with the Dungarvan Hillwalkers’ Club, and with family too. I also did a lot of walking on my own and, one Sunday, while walking deep in the woods, in a very lonely place, I felt a bit scared. So I thought, ‘I bet there are lots of people like me; people around Waterford who might be too frightened to go walking alone and who would love to go for a walk with a group’.
“Sometimes I think when there is a married couple [in a group] it can be a bit difficult if you’re a single person. I don’t know, maybe married couples can feel a bit threatened by that sometimes.
“So I wanted to keep it for single people. Not that it was going to be a dating group but just that it was going to be a level playing field. Nobody would feel threatened and nobody would feel defensive.
“So I started the group for single, divorced, separated or widowed people. In saying that, there are some married people in the group, and that’s OK too. But predominately my preference is to keep it for single people.
“Of course, when there are single people together, eyes twinkle and romance can happen. Four relationships have come out of it but I certainly don’t want to market it in that way.
“I’m a psychotherapist and as part of my research for my Masters I’m hoping to explore the benefits of walking and being in nature on mental health. There are places in America now prescribing walking rather than antidepressants. I’ve always known that nature has healing properties but I’d like to prove that in some way.
“I find when you’re walking side by side with somebody, it is almost as though you are leaning on one another as you walk. You can actually get to depths with a person out in nature that you cannot get to when you’re inside four walls.
“You can visit places in your lives that you thought you would never maybe visit.
“Our group isn’t about fitness. It’s about friendship. It’s about connecting with people and exploring the countryside. It’s about feeling good about yourself and helping other people to feel good too.”