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Walking your way to better all-round health

12:00am | & Health

Designed to promote beneficial physical activity for older people, a countrywide “Walking for Health” initiative is being showcased and endorsed by Public Health England.

Run by The Ramblers and funded by Sport England, Walking for Health is an England-wide network of schemes that organise regular short group-walks that are open to all. Mainly targeting older people and those with long-term health conditions, the programme improves and maintains the health and wellbeing of people who may be inactive and need support to remain physically active.

Dr William Bird MBE, who set up the first Health Walk scheme in 1996, said: “The benefit of walking in a group is that the social motivation is often the most important factor in getting people active.

“For some people it is their only contact with the outside. For those who are isolated, then physical activity is a means to an end with meeting others being the primary driver. Walking groups can have a huge impact on ensuring people make movement a part of their daily lives as people have to schedule them in regularly and encourage each other along.”

Walking for Health comprises 361 schemes delivering an average of 1,800 walks every week to around 80,000 walkers. Some 5,000 volunteer walk leaders support the service, and each scheme is led by local organisations such as local authorities, charities, leisure providers and NHS bodies.

Walking for Health is designed to be accessible to people who have done little or no activity before, or who need more support to stay active than they’ve had in the past. Each scheme is tailored to meet the needs of the local area. When there is a need for a new scheme, the Ramblers Walking for Health team has dedicated officers who give the necessary support to get it going.

Each new scheme must meet all five specific accreditation criteria, that each walk is:

  • regular – consistent walks undertaken on a frequent basis
  • short – not longer than 90 minutes and at least one 30-minute walk a week
  • easy – accessible to all, particularly people who are currently inactive
  • free – no membership or fees, not-for-profit only
  • led by trained volunteers – all volunteer leaders must complete our walk leader training.

Walking for Health targets older adults and those with long-term health conditions, so that:

  • 85% of walkers are over 55
  • 33.6% of walkers have at least one serious health condition (excluding cancer)
  • 4.3% of walkers have been diagnosed with cancer
  • 7.3% of new walkers in the past year have been diagnosed with cancer.

The programme encourages these participants to raise and then maintain their levels of weekly physical activity as a means of managing some of the symptoms that may be present. Participants report improvement in several measures of wellbeing, such as improving or managing symptoms of long-term health conditions, alleviating social isolation and encouraging social interaction. Examples include:

  • reduction of inhaler use
  • weight loss
  • addressing problems associated with high/low blood pressure
  • reducing social isolation
  • intervening to address mental health issues such as anxiety

Walking for Health prioritises sustained moderate-level physical activity among its participants. People tend to decrease the amount of activity as they get older, so the programme encourages participants to maintain their activity levels, with clear evidence that it succeeds in this aim. More than half of the respondents said it was unlikely they would have found a similar scheme in the absence of Walking for Health.

• To find out more and to see if there’s a scheme in your area (or learn how to get one going), just click here. To find out more about the Ramblers (formerly the Ramblers Association), click here.

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