Walking has long been Ireland’s most popular form of leisure time activity, but lockdown has seen even more of us take to the pavements. New research from Sports Ireland shows that while the number of people participating in other sports has fallen, those walking regularly has soared from 65pc pre-lockdown to 78pc since restrictions started.
The reports show that an additional 500,000 people are walking,” reveals Linda Sankey from Get Ireland Walking (getirelandwalking.ie). “We’ve seen an amazing increase in people walking during lockdown and we’re keen to capture this and encourage people to continue to walk.”
There’s a tendency to overlook walking as a workout. But studies show that it can be a highly successful lifestyle strategy against abdominal obesity in particular. Research regularly shows that the best exercise is the one you’re most likely to stick at, and with easy access, no kit required and no specialist training (or gym fee) needed, walking ticks a lot of those boxes.
A 2015 study even suggested that a brisk walk could be better for losing weight than going to the gym, with researchers finding that walking was linked to the biggest difference in BMI for both men and women. Men who walked regularly were revealed to have a BMI of one unit less than those who didn’t and for women, the difference was 1.8 units.
Meath mum-of-three Marian Shanley has been walking daily since lockdown started and, to date, has lost 7lbs.
“Before lockdown, life was driving the kids to and from school and coaching the under-12s at my local GAA club, always go, go go… and then suddenly, it all stopped,” she explains.
After a brief spell enjoying the strange sensation of not having to get up at 6.30am and drive anyone anywhere, she decided to use her mornings and start walking 4km a day, exploring the countryside and the flora (she works as a medical herbalist) around where she lives.
“Now I’m noticing little changes like I can feel my ribs at the top, my clothes are looser and I’m appreciating my legs more – I might even let them out of leggings soon!” she laughs.
In general, someone walking will need to do so for around twice as long to burn the same amount of calories as someone running. But it’s also worth considering that running impacts three times your body weight with every step, while walking only impacts 1.5 times, making it easier on joints, especially for those who are overweight.
“Walking ranks as the most important form of exercise you can do daily,” says Dominic Munnelly, sports scientist and co-author of Move, Train, Nourish. “Of course, walking is going to burn less calories compared to running or doing a long cycle over the same length of time,” he adds. “But harder isn’t better, consistent is better.”
The ‘10,000 steps’ figure gets thrown around a lot as a walking for weight-loss target. Where this number seems to stem from is it takes an estimated 10,000 steps to burn up to 3,500 calories a week – roughly the equivalent of losing a pound of body fat.
Of course, that calculation is dependent on multiple factors, including starting weight. Walking is a load-bearing exercise, so what you weigh – or the amount of weight you’re carrying – will impact what you can lose and how quickly.
Speed also factors in fat-burning.
“In order to burn fat, you should be walking at ‘brisk’ pace for approximately 30 minutes,” explains Stephen Garland, coach at Belfast Running Club. “Different people will have different thresholds of what brisk actually is for them – try and aim where you can walk and talk, able to hold a conversation, but unable to launch into karaoke classics.”
If you’re tethered to a monitoring device, then you should be aiming for a pulse rate between 50pc and 70pc of your maximum heart rate (MHR can be roughly calculated by subtracting your age from 220). But even if moderate intensity is too challenging, there are rewards to be reaped at a slower pace, with researchers at the University of Bedfordshire discovering that just two minutes of low intensity walking every 20 minutes resulted in improved blood sugar control in people who are obese.
Most health benefits occur with at least 30 minutes walking, five days a week. “Some studies suggest that walking after a meal will help with losing weight,” reveals Garland. “The science behind this is that walking after a meal helps prevent blood sugar spikes which can lead to weight gain and it’s helpful with digestion.”
Varying intensity can also bear results. “To optimise your walking, I would suggest two to three days of a longer walk of over 40 minutes at a low intensity, two to three days shorter, faster walking with some hills and one to two days of mobility focus for 60 minutes, such as a yoga class of foam rolling combined with stretching,” says Munnelly.
He’s keen to stress the last inclusion is important, as walking is not a full body workout. Nor should we forget the importance of the food. “Any and all weight loss is determined by calories in, calories out, so you could do a three-hour walk and not drop a single pound if you return home and eat everything in sight,” he explains. “Walking is a great way to help you drop some weight as it’s lower intensity and allows for consistency, but must be combined with food intake that has you eating less calories than what your body currently requires.”
Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin and author of In Praise of Walking, is passionate about the benefits of walking beyond its workout value, describing it as “one of the simplest and proven methods to enhance your performance, to enhance how you feel, to enhance your memory, to enhance your reaction times [and], to slow down brain and muscle aging”.
He believes every step (even those ones you do around your kitchen at the end of the day to appease your FitBit) counts and counsels adding more throughout the day by taking phone calls on the hoof (“You can add 4,000-5,000 steps on an hour-long call and not even notice,” says Shane), setting reminders to walk every 30 minutes and staying motivated by walking with others.
Of course, in these socially distanced times, that last one is easier said than done. But the incentivising aspect of joining online walking groups such as #100daysofwalking and #walkingthroughthecrisis reaps rewards.
Mullingar-based social media trainer Melanie Boylan says she felt ‘blimp mode’ was settling in when she appealed for virtual walking company on Twitter mid-April.
“I knew I needed to do something that would engage me and keep me interested and, more importantly, keep me accountable,” she explains. “I was fortunate enough to find two #walkfit fans and I’ve been doing it every day since.” She’s now lost half a stone, averaging more than 2lbs per week.
“Overall, I’ve probably gone from a size 14 to a 12 but it’s not just about the weight for me, it’s about having that time for myself and how that makes me feel,” adds Boylan. “I also find walking gives me energy, so I’m cooking more proper wholesome food from scratch – there’s definitely a domino effect.”
But even if you’re walking and don’t feel your waistband loosen at the pace you’d like (though remember that it’s weight lost gradually that has the best chance of staying off) then don’t forget the sheer joy afforded by change of pace.
“When I was training for the Olympic Games, I would miss everything as I was just so focused on times,” reveals former race walker and bronze medallist Rob Heffernan. “Now when I get out to exercise, I really enjoy taking in the scenery and just enjoy investing in a positive sense into my body and mind.”
He adds: “The fitness walker should have individual goals daily to maintain… but don’t forget to enjoy the outside and nature also – as with everything, you need a balance. The important thing is to get out and exercise every day because you’ll always feel better afterwards.”
Read parts 1-3 of our exercise series: