ORNI recently hosted the ‘Power of Walking’ Conference with the Public Health Agency and Sport NI. The objective was to demonstrate how achieving a stronger culture of walking has the power to offer enormous benefits for the local population in Northern Ireland.
The conference was opened by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride and Chair of Sport NI, George Lucas. The conference featured renowned experts from GB and Ireland from the health, environment, community, sport and physical activity sectors, showcasing the latest research, practices and evidence on walking.
Key aims included:
- Enhancing delegates’ knowledge of the benefits of walking to public health and communities
- Showcasing good practice in the UK and Ireland
- Reflecting on health trends and the latest research
- Providing opportunities for cross-disciplinary and cross-departmental networking
With eleven excellent presentations across the day from a range of experts it is a challenge to provide a summary, however, the key take-aways are outlined below:
We’ve got a major challenge ahead
Worrying levels of Northern Ireland’s population are overweight or obese
64% of adults are overweight or obese
27% of children (under 16) are obese or overweight
Over a quarter of the population is inactive
Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer’s recommended level of physical activity is 150 minutes or more of moderate aerobic activity per week. Only 55% of Northern Ireland’s population currently meet the CMO’s guidelines, with 28% of the population being completely inactive.
Meanwhile waiting lists continue to grow
Walking provides an achievable solution
“If physical activity were a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat.” UK Chief Medical Officers, 2019
Professor Marie Murphy highlighted that walking is an achievable solution to the public health crisis as it is the activity of choice for the inactive:
- Socially acceptable
- Low or small skill required
- No equipment of facility required
- Easily incorporated into lifestyle
- Uses major muscle groups
- Low impact / injury
Lacking Time? Then walk faster!
Furthermore, Professor Marie Murphy demonstrated that increasing walking pace could be linked with lower risk for all-cause and cardio vascular disease mortality.
Walking at 3 miles per hour can be classed a vigorous activity (75% max heart rate):
- 6% of men and 28.6% of women would achieve VIGOROUS intensity activity by walking at 3mph
- 4 million individuals (20%) of all individuals aged 25-64 could achieve the intensity considered necessary for cardio vascular fitness gains
Source: Professor Marie Murphy presentation
Walk for happiness
The physical benefits of walking often capture the headlines; however, it is essential to recognise the immense benefits to mental health or put simply happiness!
Depression today has the greatest burden of disease globally (WHO, 2017). Dr Paul Kelly presented the findings from a recently published scoping review demonstrating:
- Walking may improve positive mental health outcomes such as happiness and self-esteem
- There is strong evidence that walking can prevent and treat depression and anxiety (strongest evidence for depression)
Source: Dr Paul Kelly presentation
Dr William Bird, clearly demonstrated that a focus on ‘walking for happiness’ is essential to break the cycle – in summary:
Chronic inflammation is the ‘cause of causes’ contributing to conditions such as:
Chronic inflammation is therefore a new disease that conventional medicine cannot treat. Promotion of walking for both happiness and health is therefore essential.
Walking can reduce inflammation through:
- Reducing visceral fat
- Producing powerful anti-inflammatories (myokines)
- Developing healthy cells – full of anti-oxidants
Source: Dr William Bird Presentation
Where people walk is important
As outlined by Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, 40% of Europeans say the most common setting for physical activity is the outdoors. In the UK this is estimated at 18-20%.
This means UK citizens are not maximising the mental health benefits of being active in green space which include:
- Reduced Stress
- Enhanced Attention
- Increased Empathy
- Greater Nature Connectedness
- Reduced Perceived Effort
- Increased Resilience
We can’t change through small initiatives
The collective of presentations made it very clear that the development of a stronger culture of walking is essential to address issues relating to health and happiness in Northern Ireland. Whilst it is recognised there are many initiatives taking place these will have limited impact without a joined-up strategic approach.
As outlined by Dr William Bird, it is necessary to move away from solely venue-based strategies (sports pitches, gyms etc) to a community-based activity where activity happens everywhere. Ultimately success will only be realised once lots of people become activity leaders themselves.
This should not be confused with leading walking groups rather simply taking the lead for your own activity choices.
Collaboration is key
Helen Morrison from Paths for All provided the inspiration as to how a collaborative strategic approach has achieved success in Scotland.
Paths for All lead on the delivery of Let’s Get Scotland Walking – The National Walking Strategy 2016 – 2026
Helen left us with some clear learning points for the way ahead
- We don’t need to keep proving walking works
- Engage with Health Professionals from the start
- Find key influential people who are enthusiastic
- Build capacity locally
- A central point of support and resource for the programme is vital
- Keep it simple
Get involved in the effort to harness the power of walking in Northern Ireland. As a first point of contact, email Aideen at Outdoor Recreation NI on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 028 9030 3930
The challenge is now set. The evidence and rationale are clear. It is time to collaborate and drive forward a culture of walking in Northern Ireland.
Head of Marketing and Participation