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Walking in Mayo could be the ultimate medicine

Nurturing

WALKERS’ PARADISE Mayo’s coastline, hills and back roads offer walkers clean, fresh air and knock-out scenery. 

Health

Andrew O'Brien

Walking is man’s best medicine. So said Hippocrates, the Greek physician who is considered to be the father of modern medicine. It’s a wonderfully simple thought. In many ways, too simple to be true, and yet in many ways so simple it just might be.
How could such a claim be true? Walking is a fundamental human movement; almost everyone on this earth can walk, save for the severely disabled and frail. In a genuine ‘use it or lose it’ scenario, even the very elderly can continue walking provided they continue the habit.
All medicine has a cost and a risk. Walking has very little of either.
From a cost perspective, most people don’t need any equipment at all, even shoes are optional when the environment is right. As we age and our balance or confidence declines, perhaps a stick or a walking frame might be useful, otherwise all you need is your legs and some motivation.
Sure, in the West of Ireland a raincoat might come in handy sometimes, but compared to the cost of medication, a plastic raincoat is pretty cheap.
There is a slight risk of injury when walking, that of falling over, which is where the stick and the frame come in. However, when compared to running, a sport in which up to 80 percent of participants are injured every year, that risk is extremely low.
Walking then, is cheap and low risk. So what? How does that make it good medicine?
A meta-analysis of 42 studies published in 2015, found that participants in walking groups had decreased blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat and cholesterol, and increased aerobic fitness, mental wellbeing and physical function when compared to sedentary individuals. Additionally, no adverse side effects were reported in any of the included studies. Cheap, low risk and very effective.
A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2017 found that adults aged over 55 who took more than 8,800 steps per day spent one third of a day less in hospital per year than those who took 4,500 steps per day. One third of a day doesn’t sound like much until you put it in monetary terms: taking those extra 4,500 steps saved AU$550 per person per year. At a time when the HSE is creaking badly, and given that the majority of those using the health services are older people, there is an enormous saving to be made simply by encouraging people to walk more.
One of the lead researchers of the study, Dr Ben Ewald of the University of Newcastle was quoted as saying: “Any exercise is better than no exercise, and more exercise is better.” He believes that the biggest benefits are seen by increasing the activity levels of the least active.
As well as reducing hospital stays for older people, regular walking breaks have been shown to increase workplace productivity, with outdoor walking breaks having a greater effect again.
Similarly, walking has been shown repeatedly to have a positive effect on mood and self-esteem in people of all ages. Those positive effects tend to be greater for people with mental-health complaints, but are also seen in healthy individuals. They are also greater in ‘green’ rather than urban environments. Some studies also suggest that the presence of water can enhance this effect further. Of recent times, we have seen a surge in popularity of activity trackers that count, among other things, the number of steps taken in a day. Sadly, they tend to be marketed at the active, when in reality the inactive would probably benefit more. Seeing in black and white that you have only taken 3,000 steps today would hopefully provide motivation to increase your steps tomorrow. Conversely, seeing that you have taken 10,000 by lunchtime might encourage an active person to slow down for the afternoon. When you consider that a study of modern day hunter-gatherers showed an average daily walking distance of 12.2km, with 65 year olds still averaging 10.8km, Western recommendations are still very conservative.
Perhaps Hippocrates was right and walking really is man’s best medicine. When you consider the proven benefits to general and mental health as well as workplace productivity and combine them with the fact that the environment is permanently green with miles of coastline and lakes aplenty, walking in Mayo may just be man’s ultimate medicine. It’s so simple it just might be perfect.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park.
He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.