May is National Walking Month. In previous years, this is the month when we would be encouraged to, quite simply, just get out there and walk. With campaigns to ditch the car and walk to school, fundraisers across the country for charities with sponsored walks and treks, and a platform for councils and urban planners to consider the restructuring of space for safer walking and the protection of our countryside, this would usually be a month when we would all make every effort to use the most natural activity we have – wherever, whenever and as often as we could.
This year, with the pandemic very much still hanging over us, this national calendar event could not be more pertinent. For many of us, who aren’t key workers trying to keep our country safe, walking is all we have now to just get out of the house and keep some semblance of normality in our day. And, ironically, we’re rediscovering this simple pleasure in a way that all the campaigning in the world could never have hoped to achieve. It’s uplifting, with endless health benefits and – most of all – it’s free!
Apart from the obvious physical benefits, scientific studies have shown that even just 20 minutes spent walking each day has a significant impact on our health, reducing the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. For menopausal and post-menopausal women regular walks help to build and maintain bone density. Calorie burning and stamina building, and with a boost of vitamin D that can have a dramatic effect on our mood and wellbeing, there’s little doubt – walking is essential as one of the most important and easiest ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay fit and yet, until now, it’s so often overlooked.
For me, I’m discovering that I have never enjoyed walking more than I do now. Nothing is better than the feel of pure fresh air when we have no choice but to largely stay inside, and perhaps for the first time in a long time I am noticing so much more as I take our dog through the fields and woods I am so lucky to have on my doorstep. The last six weeks has seen everything come back to life. The trees have that beautiful vibrant green of early summer. There are carpets of bluebells and forget-me-nots, wild red poppies along uncut verges, hares racing across fields, and even the sound of birdsong seems more intensified – or is it just that I had never stopped for long enough to really hear this? All things that in the ordinary course of my working day would have passed me by. If we have to go through this pandemic, there’s a tiny shred of solace to be taken in that it couldn’t have come at a better time of year.
This year we can’t embrace National Walking Month as we would have in previous years. We can’t organise fundraiser events on any significant scale, we can’t ditch the car and walk to school and we can’t get together with friends for a leisurely ramble in the countryside. But we can consider what the new term ‘social distancing’ – something that may be with us for a long time yet – is beginning to highlight. We’re recognising that footpaths aren’t wide enough, pavements too narrow, a lack of cycling paths, a need for more green space and the possibility of more pedestrian-friendly areas that could allow many aspects of our daily life to be undertaken on foot.
Just for now though, in these extraordinary times – and thinking beyond our physical health and fitness – perhaps walking needs to be all about our wellbeing. It clears our heads. It allows us to breathe. It gives us the time to appreciate the beauty of nature moving along through the seasons in ways we might not have appreciated quite so much before any of this began. Twenty minutes, two hours, however long we choose – walking can bring with it a sense of peace and this is something we need more than ever now, however brief.