With inactivity and obesity arguably being the most pressing and serious public health issues any nation faces today, it’s not surprising that the promotion of walking has come to the fore.
It is a relatively easy hit and has been shown to have an impact on type 2 diabetes, alongside other interventions like changes to diet. It is the exercise wonder drug because it is so simple to embed into people’s daily lives.
The issue with walking at the moment though, from a public health perspective, is that many people who have adopted it as a means of becoming more active are still not yet moving quickly enough to gain significant health benefits, although they are at least more active.
The campaigns have moved on now from advice just to walk – getting off the bus a stop early or using stairs not lifts – to stressing the importance of walking ‘briskly’, which is where Sport Walking could be a great fit in the overall drive to increase activity rates.
Just telling people to walk faster though isn’t necessarily enough and might even leave many struggling with motivation. Some will find it hard because they maybe won’t know how to make the adaptations to their walking style that will make walking faster easy and the additional effort on its own will put them off – being physically tested and out of breath may be why they don’t like running for instance.
But if the exertion is just a component part of a bigger, more fulfilling picture, you give people a reason to walk faster and they are then less focussed on feeling out of breath or being physically tested. Building tangible challenge into the offer gives them a real sense of purpose and they will feel more rewarded for the extra effort than if they simply feel they are being told to move faster.
The specific attributes of Sport Walking make it ideal as a means of getting people to move faster in a controlled way. The whole point of it is to move quickly, the structured nature of taking on challenges gives people a strong focus and incentive to make regular training and development a part of their everyday schedules.
And that’s kind of the whole point really isn’t it. Getting people to embed energetic exercise in their daily routines is critical, as unless you enjoy what you do and feel fulfilled by your exercise, you’re not likely to keep it up. Because with Sport Walking the reason for doing it is the reward itself – the challenges you take on, more often than not in beautiful locations – the other walking you do to prepare for that has a real purpose and is taking you somewhere.
In training, you would walk in other beautiful locations, even for short periods, to replicate what your challenge will give you, so you are continually being inspired by your surroundings and this tempers the effort you put into it.
Sport Walking is so accessible and can offer something at any stage of someone’s fitness or sporting journey. At the highest level, it’s a serious endurance sport but the ease with which you can take it up means that it can also be a great add on for someone already walking for health. You can bolt on different elements of Sport Walking at any stage, that can enhance what people already do for health and fitness.
The key is not to challenge someone who’s starting out, to walk 100km in just six months but to encourage them simply to start walking on footpaths, by lakes, on National Trails and in other countryside locations with a view to taking on an achievable challenge – to walk 10k say, in a time that will mean they test themselves a little but can feel really proud of their efforts. Then, they simply repeat this process, increasing the distances gradually or increasing their speed in small steps, so that they feel in control and adopt the sport willingly as their own.
Because Sport Walking is simply about the approach to walking – viewing it as a sport, setting challenges, training for these challenges – there’s very little ‘compliance’ that will put people off. You really do set your own targets and as long as you’re calculating what you want to do on the basis of what is a reasonable assumption of your ability, you can always outperform your own expectations.
Sport Walking has a high performance component to it but it’s not just an elite endurance sport. Someone walking 5k up a hill, at a pace that they find difficult, is just as valid as an experienced walker taking on a 100 mile challenge. The sense of achievement they will feel when they reach the top of that hill is exactly the same as the 100 miler smashing their goal. Sport Walking challenges are all equal because it’s all about what that challenge means to the individual undertaking it.
Endurance sport is big draw now – Ultras are the new marathons – and Sport Walking is potentially the most accessible endurance sport there is. Although taking up an endurance sport isn’t necessary to deliver improvements to people’s health, it can be one of the most effective ways to manage both physical and mental wellbeing. Giving people an attainable, fulfilling activity they can easily do, which keeps them active for longer periods, could really help tackle our inactivity crisis and, at the same time, give thousands of people a sense of real purpose in adopting a healthier lifestyle.