UK gets its walking boots on and heads for the hills

Special IoS survey finds that more and more of us are legging it. Children are even walking to school

Hundreds of thousands of Britons are donning walking boots every month amid an explosion of schemes to promote the social, health and environmental benefits of walking, according to research by
The Independent on Sunday.

More than a one and a half million school children are expected to take part in May's Walk to School campaign. It starts today as part of the first National Walking Month organised by Walk England, a social enterprise, and Living Streets, a pedestrian safety charity. The latest government figures, from 2009, show the number of children regularly walking to school increased to 50 per cent after more than two decades of steady decline.

About 4,000 "health walks" take place across the UK every week, as more health professionals and charity workers "prescribe" walks for people with diabetes, heart disease and anxiety. At least 25,000 walking events will take place across the country this year, according to the new Walk for Life website. The Department of Health-funded project, run by Walk England, wants to become a one-stop free shop for walkers by making thousand of walking routes free to download.

The Ramblers, traditionally associated with middle-class, middle-aged walkers, is attracting a growing number of young people. Fifty young groups, for ramblers aged 20 to 40, have sprung up in the past five years, and now account for 10 per cent of all Ramblers groups.

More than 12,000 new city walkers will have completed the Ramblers' 12-week programme by the end of this year. This scheme has enticed nearly 6,000 people from ethnic minorities, whom most walking schemes fail to attract, to explore green spaces in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham and London. An economic analysis, to be published later this month, found every pound invested in the Ramblers' Get Walking Keep Walking programme has generated nearly three times as much in economic, social and environmental benefits to the deprived urban communities in which they operate.

This adds to a growing body of scientific and economic research which shows the far-reaching benefits of walking to individuals, communities and the public purse. From next month, a new World Health Organisation (WHO) economic analysis tool will allow governments, for the first time, to calculate how much health services could save by increasing levels of walking among different groups. The tool, to be presented at the International Transport Forum on 25 May, is expected to show the economic benefits are similar to cycling, so that for every pound invested in walking, the economy would save about £3.50 in hospital admissions, premature deaths, pollution and traffic congestion problems.

A health promotion expert, Nick Cavill, from Cavill Associates, who worked on the WHO tool, said: "WHO has been really cautious with its figures but even then, the benefit-cost ratio of walking will show governments that maybe it is more cost effective to the public purse to build more footpaths than roads."

The number of people walking regularly has declined steadily over the past 50 years, and obesity rates have soared. Last year's Department for Transport National Travel Survey found 23 per cent of all trips were on foot, but this fails to capture those walking for leisure or exercise, and short journeys are often missed.

The most detailed information comes from the Walk London project, commissioned by the London Mayor in 2003. In 2010, about 608,000 people used one of seven walks every month, compared with 63,000 in 2004. Three-quarters of walkers now use the walks, which include the Thames Path and Jubilee Way, to get from A to B, compared with 20 per cent in 2004. According to Jim Walker, chief executive of Walk England, this increase is a result of 13,000 improvements to signs, crossings, resting places, surfaces and safety at a cost of £9m.

Mr Walker said: "There is lots of walking going on, but it is very hard to record. What we have shown in London is that if you put money into walking networks, people will go out of their way to use them. Walking could save billions of pounds every year, so we have to persuade local authorities, health and transport departments to work together on this."

Walking holidays and treks are also on the rise. The adventure travel company Explore has had a 50 per cent year-on-year rise in European walking holidays. Figures from Nielsen BookData show a 33 per cent increase in walking maps and guidebook sales between 2001 and 2010.

It is short, regular, brisk walks by large numbers of people that would deliver the greatest benefits to public health. Walks for health were the brainchild of an Oxfordshire GP, William Bird, in 1996, who decided to prescribe volunteer-led walks for inactive patients suffering from conditions such as high blood pressure and osteoporosis. The health benefits are well established; for example, a middle-aged man can halve his risk of dying prematurely by walking two miles a day.

The DoH has provided £5.2m to quadruple the number of sedentary adults – those most at risk from preventable diseases – participating in health walks by 2012. The money makes sense. Investing £440 in walking schemes achieves one quality-adjusted life year (Qaly) compared with £9,000 spent on anti-cholesterol drugs, statins, which English GPs prescribed 60 million times last year.

Dr Bird said, "Walking is good medicine. The evidence is so strong that we have to convince GPs to think about prescribing exercise before they go for statins or beta-blockers which are much more expensive and do not have the psychological benefits of walking."

Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets, said: "We want to make walking the natural choice for children and adults going on short journeys by showing them how convenient and enjoyable it is. It is difficult to get politicians to prioritise walking, but the more people you get on to the streets, the more politicians take notice."

Case study: How rambling helped a traumatised 7/7 survivor

Nicola Stanley, 34, from Sittingbourne in Kent was caught-up in the 7/7 bombings a month after she moved to London. She was on her way to work via the Piccadilly line when the third bomb exploded. Physically she was lucky, but the trauma took its toll mentally. Joining a young Ramblers group helped her to recover from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder without needing to use medication...

"I was on the second or third carriage of the tube train when the bomb went off. A month later my sister-in-law gave birth to premature twins, and my nephew died after a couple of days; it was a really difficult time.

"I was physically fine apart from smoke inhalation, and everyone thought I was coping really well, but a year later I fell apart. I stopped going out, apart from work, felt depressed and became a recluse. My mum read up about exercise and mental health and so when she bumped into a group of young ramblers while out walking herself one day, she got their card.

"It rained all day on my first ramble, but I've been going every Sunday ever since. We usually walk between eight and 15 miles. Sometimes there are as many as 25 of us, all in our thirties and forties, and we always go to a pub at the end. I have got to know Kent a lot better as a result. Every week I look forward to it; it has helped me to come out of myself. There are a few people who have been through traumatic experiences in the group, and it has helped talking to them.

"I always thought rambling was for old people and really didn't expect to enjoy it, but I absolutely love it and would be lost without it. I've got the boots, but am not quite ready for sticks or bobble hat."

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