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Walking your way to good health

A few years ago, in one of those “new year, new you” features that newspapers carry in early January, The Observer carried out a long-term experiment to find out the best way to get fit. Some readers took out gym memberships and worked according to defined fitness plans. Others merely strapped on a pair of decent walking shoes or trainers, stuck a pedometer in their pocket and stepped up ready to hit the open road, pavement or footpath.

The results were remarkable. Those who stuck to the regimes tended to lose weight, define their body shape and lower their blood pressure. This, at least, was very predictable. What was slightly less expected was that there was no discernible difference the quality of the results achieved between those who joined a gym and those who merely went for a walk.

Hitting the magic number – 10,000 steps a day

According to the NHS if you’re walking to get fit, the magical number is 10,000 steps a day. And in the roundest of round terms, this amounts to about five miles. If you have an active job, the recommended 10,000 mark isn’t too difficult. On the other hand, if like many of us, you spend most of the day sitting in the chair or at a desk staring at a computer screen, getting up to the 10,000 mark is more difficult. If you are out of shape, you may may find that in the beginning it may take  about 30 minutes or more to do 2,000 steps. As you get fitter, that time will decrease to 25 and then maybe 20 minutes. If you’re power-walking, you could do it even quicker. However the idea is to maintain an even, comfortable, pace so that you get pleasantly out of breath. There is a simple test: you should be able to carry out a conversation with someone, but be unable to sing a song.

The Observer experiment when slightly further. Some of the walkers certainly got the feel for it and one went on to clock up a remarkable 20,000 steps a day and found that her health benefited accordingly. Nature gives us free bonus from exercise. This comes in the form of a feelgood hormone called noradrenaline and is delivered into our blood stream after we finish exercising. It’s a sort of natural high – a  thank you from your body for looking after it.

The virtuous circle

The more we do, the better we feel. This is a classic virtuous circle. However on the other side of the coin there is a vicious circle. It works like this. The less we do, the more unable we become to help ourselves and the less we fancy the idea of exercise. And if you add into that all the typical aches and pains that come with ageing it’s clear that once a comfortable level of fitness begins to elude you, it’s much harder to get it back the longer things go on.

The great thing about walking, or jogging,  compared to join the health club is that there is almost no financial outlay. In fact if you have a decent pair of shoes or trainers, devecent orthotics if you need them, and good pair of socks, the exercise comes free. And as any good Yorkshireman will tell you, free is a hard price to beat.