Walking is one of the gentlest physical activities we can indulge in and still benefit our health. Easy walking is used as a way back to fitness for conva-lescents or after a long, unfit period in one’s life. Brisk walking, perhaps backpacking over hills and fells, is a fairly strenuous exercise that rates with jogging and swimming as an improver of heart, lungs, circulation, muscle power, joint mobility and general fitness. The beauty of walking is that it is so easy. It can be done virtually anywhere, at any time, either alone or in groups, as part of a routine or not, or just to get away and unwind.

For very obese people walking is virtually the only physical activity that can be undertaken without undue suffering and bodily damage. Doctors recom-mend gentle walking as the first exercise therapy for a number of conditions, including varicose veins and heart disease. At the other extreme walking can become a tough activity if you are out on high hills with a rucksack packed full of camping equipment and food. Soldiers on route marches, carrying full survival gear and weapons, find walking one of the most arduous parts of their training.

Effects on the body

A person walking consumes about 20 to 30 per cent more energy than someone sitting or lying still. If you want to use walking as a means of losing weight – and to do this it must be combined with reduced Calorie intake – you will need to walk at least 8 to 10 miles a day, which might take three hours. This is impractical for most of us. Walking is therefore an inefficient means of burning off Calories in the average person’s day but it can help the body to prepare for more strenuous sporting activities. As you would expect, it is the blood circulation and the muscles of the calf, thigh and pelvis which benefit most in walking. Any activity that involves the large muscles in the hips and legs places healthy demands on the heart and circulation in order to keep these muscles supplied with oxygen and nutrients. This is the basis of the beneficial effects of walking, jogging, swimming and similar exercises. When walking you should stride out and try to get into a regular rhythm, swinging the body and arms loosely so that they help to carry you forwards over each step. When you come to a hill, do not slow down but try to keep up the pace, so that you begin to get slightly breathless and perhaps sweaty; this shows the exercise is having a beneficial effect.

Preparations and equipment

For most people, easy walking needs little in terms of preparation of their physical selves. A healthy youngster could expect to be able to compete in a 12 mile sponsored walk without any preparation except for wearing suitable clothes. But for more strenuous walking, the type that brings real health benefits, a little more thought and preparation are necessary. When walking over uneven terrain, your feet and ankles need to be properly supported and comfortable. You will certainly need good-quality, purpose-designed walking boots with ankle support, leather uppers and non-slip soles if you want to do any long h:

IS m walks or go into the countryside. Thick woollen socks are advised. These absorb perspiration and retain their shape for a snug, but not tight or rucked-up, fit. The rest of your clothing is a matter of personal choice. Avoid jeans, however, because denim has poor insulating qualities, and in general do not wear any tight garment that restricts the circulation. Loose-fitting trousers (or skirt) made of a thick material, for warmth and to protect against thorns and similar objects, are a better choice. Wear or carry several thin sweaters (preferably wool) and a cagoule or anorak in case of adverse weather. Walking any distance is likely to make you thirsty so you should carry water, fruit juice or similar drinks. A map and compass are useful to stop you straying onto private property or getting lost. Furthermore your rucksack should contain a spare pair of socks, a spare sweater, a hat and gloves in colder months, fluids, an energy-giving snack such as chocolate for longer outings, as well as a simple first aid kit to treat possible cuts and blisters. All this might seem like advice for an ‘outward bound’ course, but it is better to be prepared and comfortable than to turn what should be a pleasant experience into sheer misery. Few things are worse than walking about in wet clothes and wet shoes with absolutely nothing to eat or drink.

When to stop walking

It takes a little time to become used to walking in proper walking boots but in the long run you will prefer them because your feet will be well supported and you will be able to cover greater distances more comfortably. But a walker’s feet do suffer, no matter what is worn.

Blisters are the most common problem, due to friction between boot and skin. If they burst, a light dressing will help make them more comfortable. Extensive blistering (typically from brand-new boots) will prevent you from doing much walking until they have healed. So the advice is, as with other sports and exercises: start slowly and build gradually. In time the skin on your feet will harden sufficiently and the blisters cease to be a problem. Cracked and split soles often arise if the feet are allowed to soak in their own perspiration for too long. Under these circumstances fungal infections can take hold. These can be dealt with by using various antifungal creams, but to avoid them you should make sure you walk in clean socks. Many experienced walkers put dusting powder inside their boots to keep their feet dry.

Foot fatigue is not uncommon, even in well-prepared walkers. Rest, preferably with the feet raised to relieve fluid congestion in the connective tissue, is the best treatment but the foot may remain painful for some while even when no load is imposed on it. Except on beaches, barefoot walking is best avoided, for safety’s sake. It takes a long time to thicken and ouild up sufficient hard tissue on the sole of the foot to make barefoot walking a practical proposition, and if the skin splits, such walking can be very painful. Most societies have developed some form of footwear over the centuries and there seems little point in going back to nature over this matter.

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