Health and Well-being

See also blog entry “health, pain and fitness – does 1000 miles help?“.

When I started the walk I had not walked any serious distance since I was 18 years old, and even then never day-on-day walking such as this.  The fact that I was starting at such a low point will hopefully make the ECG data particularly interesting for health and well-being researchers.

In fact, walking for research is far from a stress-free contemplative experience!  As well as spending eight to ten hours a day on my feet, I was writing approximately 2000 words a day and spending at least an hour ‘tending technology’ (charging devices, copying files from one device to another, etc.) and more when on WiFi and uploading data.  In addition, I had to either plan bed and breakfasts with virtually no Internet connectivity and/or plan public transport back and forth to campsites with, often, virtually non-existent rural bus services.

One consequence of this is that the ECG trace very clearly shows my heart rate soar at 5am, at first light, when I start to stir and yet while still asleep begin to mull over the day ahead.  Indeed during this ‘worry time’ the heart rate peeked as high as when I was doing the most strenuous walking.  No wonder people die at night!

Physically, after a few weeks I was a mountain goat, becoming one of those really annoying people, who walk up steep hills effortlessly passing everyone on the way.  However another month in and long-term exhaustion and damage started to set in with various aches and pains and deep, deep tiredness.  Happily this too eventually passed, except for the soles of my feet, which took a month to recover after I finished.

I had expected that my legs would strengthen while walking, but that maybe my upper body would atrophy a little without similar exercise.  I had intended to deliberately do exercises in the evenings, but never had time.  When I got back I decided to try a few press-ups, and, to my astonishment, I could do 30 press-ups effortlessly when before the walk I could mange 10-20 with effort.  In succeeding days I found I could regularly do 50 press-ups at a time, and indeed have once done 100.

This is not upper body strength, but the fact that walking has both strengthened my core muscles (stomach and back) and also improved general cardio-vascular fitness.  If you are strong enough to do one press up you are strong enough to do one hundred, it is getting oxygen and fuel to your muscles that is the limiting factor.

Walking is in fact one of the best forms of exercise, with little risk of injury (well unless you walk 1000 miles at a go!), and many health benefits; even cancer recovery is significantly improved by walking.

In the UK, childhood and adult obesity is an increasing problem, as it is across much of the developed world, and I believe this is even true now amongst the more prosperous in India.  In the UK, the biggest problem is amongst the poor; calorie deficit is rarely a problem, just that the cheapest foods are ‘junk foods’, so a poor person’s diet is usually a poor diet.

Sadly, while walking seems ‘free’ actually many are put off walking because of the need (in the British climate) for expensive rain gear, boots etc. – fitness is big industry.  I spoke to a taxi driver who was severely overweight, and loved walking, but couldn’t as he was not able to find affordable rainwear in his size XXXL.

These equipment problems are compounded by expensive and infrequent public transport, which makes it hard to get out of the city unless you have a car.  I recall when I was a child, I couldn’t afford busses, and it could take an hour or two to get clear of the city before I walked in the countryside.  I did it because (at that point!) I was already fit, but what about those who are taking their first tentative steps at exercise?

However, there are positive signs too.  In Llanelli, where long-closed steelworks used to border the seacoast, the land has been reclaimed into nature reserves and waterside parkland.  It is one of the poorer areas of South Wales and yet there appears to be widespread pride in this urban-edge land that is designed for walking and cycling.  As is common, the residential developments are ‘executive’, but the parkland is open to all.