Last reviewed 23 April 2021

Many of the best things in life are free. There is a very good case for walking regularly in the new post-pandemic, low-carbon environment ― and employers can support this. Jon Herbert reports.

When Julius Caesar and the Romans visited us in 55BC, they walked here. When they come to stay in 43AD, they walked again. The distance was 1433km each way — but at least the roads were getting better.

Walking for pleasure developed in the 18th century as the Romantic Movement changed attitudes to nature. Walking tours gained popularity in the 19th century. By the 1930s, 10,000 weekend ramblers walked Peak District moors; there were an estimated 500,000-plus nationally.

Now walking and cycling are becoming popular again as part of three very different journeys: coming back from Covid-19, moving forward to a green recovery and on the long low-carbon road against climate change. There are also many good health reasons for setting out on foot.

There is much that most people can do today get into regular walking habits ― and encouragement and support from employers can only benefit everybody.

Walking to save the planet

Safe ways of healthy travel are high on today’s agenda as fossil fuels, poor air quality, obesity and social distancing requirements become the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse.

The “school run” emits as much carbon annually as Greenland. A generation ago, 70% of children walked to school; this is now 50%.

Last year, the Government committed £2 billion to support “active travel” for work and leisure; £200 million has already been allocated to local authorities.

Transport Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, noted in March 2021 that a majority of residents surveyed recently support low-traffic neighbourhood (LTN), improved cycle lanes and better walkway proposals. Two-thirds back road space being given over to walking and cycling.

Former MP Mary Creagh, now CEO of Living Streets, says obesity, inactivity, air pollution, climate change and congestion can all be tackled together.

Pandemic impact

During the pandemic, on average we have been walking and cycling more because of a growing appreciation of “the outdoors” and a parallel fear of using public transport.

The Department for Transport’s recent National Travel Attitudes Study shows that 34% of long-term cyclists say they are more active than before the pandemic. Of these, 95% plan to pedal more when restrictions are lifted.

Similarly, 38% of established walkers walk more since lockdown, of which 94% will walk more in the future. However, 19% of cyclists and 21% of walkers have been less active during the pandemic. The survey did not canvas new converts to either activity.

The biggest “driver” was Covid-19 public transport health fears: 82% were concerned about travelling on trains and 78% on buses. The question for many policymakers, planners and pedestrians is: how can we make walking a way of life?

Health benefits of walking

From a personal and employee perspective, walking for most people is simple — generally a matter of putting one foot in front of another. It is largely free and one of the easiest ways to become more active, lose weight and get healthy, according to the NHS.

Brisk walking helps to build stamina, burn excess calories and make hearts healthier. A brisk 10-minute daily walk counts towards a recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise. Healthy people in ordinary environments can expect to walk for five miles without needing to rest.

The health benefits of walking include burning fat, better balance, stronger legs, more bone mass, using all muscles groups, healthier blood pressure and heart, boosted endorphins, reduced glaucoma and Alzheimer’s disease risks, plus positive impacts on mental health, sleep quality, cognitive performance and memory.

These shoes are made for walking

The capital outlay is usually small. Comfortable shoes or trainers offering good support that do not cause blisters are fine. Many people walk to work in ordinary clothes, changing footwear when they arrive. Longer walks may involve taking water, healthy snacks, a spare top and a sun hat, says the NHS.

With British weather, a waterproof jacket is often advisable. More challenging routes may require specialist footwear for safety. However, simplicity is still the watchword.

How fast is fast enough?

A brisk walk is around 3mph and faster than a stroll. The NHS free Active 10 app can help here.

For people who are not very active or fast but can walk, the advice is to increase distances gradually. If joints are a problem, swimming is advised as an alternative ― local swimming pools often hold exercise classes (once we are allowed in). Water helps to support joints while muscles are strengthened. However, if medical conditions are the cause of inactivity, professional advice on exercising with a disability is needed.

Good habits

The easiest way to walk more is to make walking a habit. Employees can walk at least part of their way to work. Walking to the shops is advised for everyone. Stairs can be used instead of lifts.

Overcoming the temptation to use cars for short journeys is important too. Walking children to school, walking with a friend, or a family stroll after dinner, adds the miles slowly.

For city-dwellers, Walkit provides an interactive walk planner. Alternatively, Visorando offers a tool for planning urban and non-urban walks.

Other good walking support sources include: Walk Unlimited, Walking with Wheelchairs and Walking with Buggies.

Music has a dual effect for many people — as a distraction from the efforts involved and encouraging faster walking in tune with the rhythm of favourite songs and medleys. Again, the NHS’s Active 10 helps to track how far and fast a walk has been and create goals.

Variety also adds spice to good walking. Towns and cities offer interesting walks in parks, heritage trails, canal towpaths, riverside paths, commons, woodlands, heaths and nature reserves.

Organised walking groups like the Ramblers can be another option for making walking a healthy habit, meeting new friends and staying motivated. Depending on prevailing pandemic restrictions, the UK’s 15 national parks run free guided walks during holidays.

Walking back to health from Covid-19

For many, the effects of having had the virus are far-reaching and walking can be part of individual recovery but a return to strength must be managed carefully. HSE Ireland has published a highly detailed step-by-step guide that can help: Exercise While Recovering from Covid-19.

How employers can support walking among staff

A physically and mentally healthier workforce can only benefit the organisation. Employers can encourage employees to walk more by:

  • promoting walking as an option for physical activity and urging staff to walk more

  • providing factual information on walking’s benefits

  • ensuring basic changing facilities

  • providing an area or lockers to enable shoe storage

  • setting up lunchtime walking groups

  • encouraging walking meetings, where appropriate.