Walking back to happiness

You may not think of walking as serious exercise but it has many physical and mental health benefits. So, lace up your shoes! By Sally J. Hall. 

It’s free, anyone can get into it, it can be done (almost) anywhere and you don’t need expensive gear. In fact, walking is one of the most accessible forms of exercise around and has lots of benefits to body and mind. 

In my room 

The past couple of years have been hard on most of us, and a combination of working from home and worries over health may mean we’re less willing to head back to a packed, sweaty gym environment. Solo walking is a great way to stay calm while getting the steps you need. On the other hand, if you’ve felt bereft of human contact, organising friends for a bracing country walk, perhaps with the lure of a pub lunch, is ideal for easing back into society.  

Green day 

Walking can be a very good way to reset your mind. The act of putting one foot in front of the other and the miles under your belt can help you turn your thoughts away from anxieties – whether it’s work, health, family problems or other stresses. Getting into green, open spaces has been shown to be good for mental health. In March 2021, New Scientist ran a feature about the benefits of nature to our equilibrium: it quoted University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, who said that the evidence is “very solid” that immersing yourself in a green space helps creativity, attention span and thinking. Doctors in Shetland, the feature continues, are prescribing outdoor activities to those suffering from poor mental health and stress, so beach walks, forest bathing and bird watching now all come on the NHS.  

Scientists, of course, have tried to put a figure on just how much time in nature is good for you, and a study by the University of Exeter in 2019 came up with the figure of 120 minutes a week. One thing’s for sure: any amount of time walking is great, and the more, the merrier.  


Come together, right now 

Walking with a group is a great way to meet old and new friends. Whether you join an organised ramble or meet up with a group of like minds, the social side is as beneficial as the physical. Heading on holiday or a business trip? Look for a guided tour, which can help you discover more about your destination, with a hefty chunk of exercise thrown in. Alternatively, you might like to take this to the next level and join the Ramblers Association (see below), where you can explore footpaths through some of the country’s most beautiful areas.  

Groove is in the heart 

Walking’s often ideal for people who are not up for running or high-impact sports (though if you’ve got health concerns, do check with your GP first if you’re worried). If you have an existing health condition, you’re much more likely to feel better if you’re moving regularly.  

Your circulation will thank you if you walk, as it can gently raise your heart rate and keep it raised while you’re going. This helps strengthen your heart and lowers blood pressure. The Harvard School of Public Health has published research showing that women who walk just half an hour a day could reduce their risk of stroke by 20 per cent (and by 40 per cent if they increased their speed). 

If you’ve been ill, walking is great for improving your health without strain. Exercise releases endorphins, which act as a mood enhancer and a natural painkiller, so gentle walks can help improve a painful condition and your mood without resorting to tablets. Walking briskly burns an amazing 400 calories per hour – ideal for staying in shape after lockdown.  

Walking is low-impact, so those with problem hips or knees will benefit. It improves muscle tone for feet, legs and abdomen and even your arms. You’ll find you can breathe more deeply as your lung capacity increases, along with your stamina. This helps increase the levels of oxygen in your bloodstream, aiding your body to eliminate toxins and waste products in your body and in turn helping with joint mobility, as oxygen flows into the joints as you walk. Sleep is better if we exercise regularly too, and studies have shown that those who walk for one hour each morning have improved sleep patterns.  

Forever young 

It’s the ideal exercise as you age. Research has shown that people who exercise regularly in their 50s and 60s are much more likely to thrive than their more sedentary counterparts. Men aged 71 to 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile a day, according to a study by the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared with their non-walking counterparts.  

Similarly, a study by the University of California, San Francisco, of 6,000 women over 65 who walked 2.5 miles per day discovered that memory decline as people aged was less marked in those who walked more. What’s more, walking helps prevent osteoporosis (lowering of bone density) and will help you avoid breaks if you fall.  

Finally, Captain Tom, who walked 100 lengths of his garden for the NHS at 99, it shows that you can carry on almost indefinitely. 

Don’t stop the music 

Add some benefits into your walk: it’s the ideal time to listen to music or an educational podcast. Alternatively, just listening to nature is calming. A note of caution: do be careful of your personal safety and beware of traffic if using earbuds.  

Walk this way 

Try to see walking not as a chore but as something pleasurable that you relish; trust us, before long, you’ll be plotting walking routes to places you previously visited by car or bus. There are many ways to add miles: getting off the train a stop early; taking a walking route to work, school or the shops; or taking a circular walk during your lunch hour. 

These boots were made for walking 

Footwear is important. While any comfortable shoes will do, you may want to choose a new pair that will leave your feet feeling great even after a long day’s ramble. You might also want something you can wear with ‘ordinary’ clothes. Luckily, there’s a trend for wearing trainers with daywear, so choose something that fits your style. Use as much care choosing your shoes for walking as you would for running.  


Ramblers UK 

Thinking about taking your love of walking to the next level? Join an organised walk with the Ramblers Association. They offer organised group walks along 49,000 miles of UK paths in the most stunning scenery, from mountaintop hikes to canal-side strolls. Their Walking for Health site supports those living with health conditions.  

Ordnance Survey 

Planning your walk is simple with the support of the iconic map-makers. Whether you like an old-school paper version or something to download, they have a plethora of maps plus a series of City Walks and Short Walks booklets. 

Walkers Britain 

Affordable self-guided walking holidays across the UK and Europe are offered by this company. Walks can be combined with cycling and even boat tours to get to places a bit off the beaten track. You can even join a group holiday. 


This app (available for download to your phone or smartwatch) helps you plot routes and tells you how far you have gone.