“If a medication existed which had a similar effect to physical activity like walking, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or a ‘miracle cure’”.
England’s Chief Medical Officer (2010)
Is going for a stroll really a miracle cure for poor health and wellbeing? GPs in the Shetland Islands in Scotland seem to think so. They have started prescribing rambling and beach walks to help treat mental ill health, stress and other health conditions.
In aid of National Walking Month this May, today’s post and activity explores how going for a walk can have multiple benefits for our wellbeing.
The physical health benefits of walking
Brisk walking has the most benefits for our physical health. To tell if you are walking briskly, you should:
Physical activity such as walking briskly can improve the quality of sleep we get due to feeling more tired at the end of the day. Regular brisk walking can lower our blood pressure and help us feel less stressed and regularly walking at any speed can help manage our weight.
‘Walking is the nearest activity to perfect exercise.’
Morris & Hardman (1997)
For many of us, walking is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of physical activity we do, because:
It’s free – there’s no need to join a gym or pay club membership fees
We can go for a walk anytime and anyplace that suits us
Walking is a low impact exercise, which means the risk of injuries and accidents is low
There’s no need to just focus on walking, we can enjoy our natural surroundings or chat to the person we’re walking with or people we encounter on our walk
No training is required, just get up and go!
As well as being easy to do, we can incorporate other wellbeing themes besides physical health and connection into our walks. For example:
Mindfulness – going for a mindful walk, smelling the flowers or feeling the texture of the leaves we pass on our way
Creativity – if you’re a budding photographer, going for a walk can provide you with new scenes and moments to capture
Learning – you may walk somewhere with an interesting history, or spot something that captures your interest. Walks can be used to spark our curiosity and learn more.
Reflection – walking can help us reflect on events that have happened recently, or process experiences
This week’s activity is – you guessed it – to go for a walk. Though there’s more to it than that. Remember when you were a kid and you used to walk along walls, jump in puddles and clamber over rocks? On your walk, try harnessing that exploratory nature and go off the beaten track. If you come across a tree trunk, why not climb it? If you see a pile of leaves, kick your way through them. Really embrace your surroundings (but please make sure you are safe while you do it).
Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.
Back in March I wrote a blog post about choosing the right exercise for you. Whilst writing the post, I thought of a former colleague of mine, Richard, who had taken up running and really fell in love with it. Before he started running, he had overhauled his diet and lost a lot of weight. Once he started running, I noticed that Richard was not only healthier, but happier too.
I invited Richard to share his story with me for 15 minute wellbeing, because I think his journey is really inspirational. Richard has a real passion for running and has run distances that I couldn’t even imagine running, but like all of us, he had to start somewhere by putting one foot in front of the other. Read on to find out about his running journey and the great mantras he uses – these can benefit us in all aspects of our lives, not just exercise. I hope it inspires you to start or persevere with the exercise that is right for you.
Can you tell me about what your life was like before you started running?
“I’d gone through my weight loss and eating healthily and the next step for my wellbeing was some exercise. I started walking. I walked to Hounslow station which was 40 minutes away.
What really got me started with running was the running group at work. Jason said he’d come with me, just running one lamppost to the next. But I didn’t want to inconvenience him.
It took me 3 months of building it up until I could run 5km without stopping. I’ve kept the date when I went for my first run and refer back to it so I know how far I’ve come. It’s easy to forget what it was like before.”
Richard then went through the key dates in his running journey. I put these into a graph to show how Richard built up his endurance over time and the milestones he has achieved so far.
“My first run was on 7thMarch 2015 and first 5km on 31st May 2015, the bank holiday weekend which continues to be significant through my running journey. My first kilometre of running took just over 7 minutes.”
As you can see from the graph, Richard completed his first marathon on this bank holiday weekend in 2017 and his first ultra-marathon running from London to Brighton on the very same weekend last year.
“This year on the May bank holiday weekend I want to run the 78 mile capital ring – 3 marathons in 3 days! Just get up in the morning and get on public transport to the starting point. I’m hoping to get some of my friends to join me.”
I found it incredible that it took Richard 3 months to run 5km without stopping and that he never gave up. Many people would, but he persevered. So what was his first run like?
“I remember the straight tarmac path was 150 metres and I ran that and my legs were like ‘what the hell are you doing?’ After 700 metres my legs were hurting and I had to stop and did lots of stretches. I eventually managed 3km on that first run.
I didn’t feel too bad, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone back. So each run thereafter I tried to get round the same distance a little bit faster. I didn’t make it too painful and unpleasant. I remember when I would really push it, my eyes would lose focus. Probably fight or flight kicking in. At the time I thought this couldn’t be normal.”
What motivated you to keep running?
“My approach has always been to keep improving, whether it’s running further or faster. There’s no point comparing myself to others – I want to be the best I can whilst fitting it into the rest of my life.
I very rarely run more than 4 or 5 times a week. My body gets to the point where it says ‘give me a rest’. It’s important to listen to any niggles and rest so they don’t get worse. That’s where not comparing yourself to others really comes into play.”
Richard then went on to tell me about the social aspects of running and how the variety of running events on offer keeps him motivated:
“I have completed three marathons and am training for my fourth in Boston, Lincolnshire. It’s an opportunity to go and stay with my sister. Every time I’ve done a marathon, I’ve done the parkrun the day before. You then get to meet other people you’re running in the marathon with. Then, when you’re running it, you spot someone from the parkrun!
“Last weekend I ran just short of 50km in total. What keeps it interesting is the variety. I’m doing a bit more trail running: meet at a tube station, someone plans a route and run on trails, it makes a nice change to pounding the streets of London. It usually finishes at a nice pub!
I’ve signed up to tower running for more variety. Broadgate Tower is 35 floors. There’s a group that run up and down it 12 times – a vertical mile! I’ve been training and I’ve managed it four times, I’ve got a bit of work to do to get to 12 times. You walk it but take two steps at a time but use your arms to pull yourself up. I’m doing the tower run in July.
There is always an event going, such as the green belt relay where you run 200 miles around London in a team of 10. There’s also so many inspirational people you come across – there’s an 85 year old man at parkrun every week. I’d love to still be running at 85.”
For some, running just doesn’t appeal at all. So why running over another form of exercise?
“The gym has never really appealed to me. I used to swim 5 evenings a week and was a good swimmer, but lost interest in my teens. I re-started [swimming] in my 20s but lost interest. When I was younger, running didn’t really appeal to me, I only did it at school.
All you need is a pair of trainers and a shirt and off you go. The social aspect of running at work, could have a chat. I don’t really go to my running club as people are focused on their time. The social aspect has kept me going, making friends…
I did do some swimming as part of my getting fit. I signed up for a 5km swim and then had a few goes training. Once I did it, I stopped. I still want to challenge myself with a swim. Triathlons interest me but they’re expensive buying all the equipment.”
15 minute wellbeing is all about mental health and improving our overall wellbeing through different activities. What impact (if any) has running had on your mental health?
“I’ve become much more relaxed, I don’t worry about things as much. I used to be a bit of a perfectionist and running a marathon has taught me that I can’t run the whole thing perfectly. I’ve applied it to the rest of my life – you can’t perform at your best every day, some days when you go into work you just have to do the best you can.
Running has probably made me a more positive person, building relationships with others, giving each other positive feedback on their runs and times which makes me more positive overall. In my last marathon I didn’t get the time I wanted, but when I look back I can get delayed gratification from knowing I did a good performance.”
Richard then told me that he felt running involved many of the 15 minute wellbeing themes. In addition to the benefits to his physical health and aforementioned connecting with others and giving feedback, Richard told me how running links with the other themes:
Mindfulness – “Running is my form of mindfulness. Sometimes I’ve been running for 3 hours and I haven’t thought about much apart from running and how my body is responding.”
Learning – “Running is a really good learning tool, you only improve if you put the hard work in. There’s no quick wins with running.”
“Reflection is an important part of my running – reflecting on what went well, was the training right, did I rest well?
What advice would you give to anyone is a similar position as you were?
“Never outrun the joy of running.”
“Start off being realistic. Start off slowly and build up. Enjoy it. Never outrun the joy of running, that’s my current mantra. My previous mantras were ‘Get comfortable with discomfort’ and ‘If I believe I can achieve’.
“If I believe I can achieve.”
Find people to run with. If you’re in London there’s so many social running groups. Running shops often have running groups. Midnight runners in central London with music playing.
Parkrun is great as you get to know regular runners with the same time as you. Parkrun is ideal for people starting out. They [the parkrun organisers] want the average time of a 5 km run to get slower as they want to attract more people who want to walk 5 km. Parkrun operates all over the country.
Find out what works for you. Some people are content going for a leisurely run and talking with the same group of friends. Others need a target to work towards.”
Huge thanks to Richard for sharing his story – he really is inspirational and his passion for running is contagious. Since meeting with Richard I have started running again, taking it slowly and building my way up to 5 km non-stop. Richard has reminded me that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to do it, as long as I’m enjoying it.
I hope you have taken something from Richard and he has inspired you. If you would like to share your wellbeing-related story on 15 minute wellbeing, please do get in touch.