This week UK was branded a nation of 'desk potatoes' with one in five adults admitting to sitting at a desk all day. According to a BUPA survey, the average Britain walks only 10 minutes a day despite current medical advice being to walk for 30 minutes. As fitness and medical experts give walking the thumbs up, and new research suggests it’s the healthiest way to stay fit, Grazia’s Polly Vernon (a serial walker) shares the joys of finding her feet again...
Phill Taylor / Grazia
I know this amazIng secret. Original, true sense of the word ‘amazing’. It’s how to be slimmer and fitter, less stressed and happier in one easy step. Seriously! Oh, and actually: literally! Also: my secret has anti- depressant and anti-ageing properties, can cure hangovers, subdue anxiety, ease grumpiness and alleviate tiredness. Last month, the British Medical Journal published a study which estimated that if more Britons knew my secret, 37,000 lives a year could be saved. Rates of type 2 diabetes would fall, so would heart disease; and around 6,700 fewer people would get breast cancer every year.
Wanna know what it is? It’s walking. Bog standard, run of the mill, low-impact, one foot in front of the other, lift leg, slap foot down squarely in front of you, lift other leg, don’t fall over, repeat several thousand times until you’ve completed – well, in my case, between seven to 10 miles a day; although you could start with three miles and notice a spectacular difference in your body and head within three weeks. (Incidentally, Charles Dickens walked 20 miles a day. This fact makes me feel – competitive, mostly.)
I uncovered the great walking secret 10 years ago. The Underground was making me claustrophobic; instead, I’d started taking the bus. One morning – as I understand is not uncommon in the world of public transport – my bus just did not come. I waited and I waited, I fumed and I fumed, and then, finally, prickly with frustration and anxious about being late, I started walking. I walked to the next stop, and the one after that. After half an hour, I managed to get on a bus and complete my journey in the usual way but – I suddenly understood something. When you walk, disrupted timetables become irrelevant. You’re the master of your own travel destiny!
The next day, I got up a little earlier and walked a little further. Within a week, I was doing my entire commute on foot. It took about an hour and a quarter – 41⁄2 miles at a briskish pace – but London buses are so erratic, walking wasn’t actually consuming very much extra time. When I realised, a few weeks on, that my regime also appeared to be sculpting my thighs, lifting my arse and doing something satisfactory to my stomach muscles, well! I started walking home, too. Rude not to.
After three months – during which time, autumn turned into fully blown winter and I worked out that the weather is no real obstacle; it simply doesn’t rain as much as you think it does – I noticed things were changing within my head. However I felt at the beginning of a walk – insecure or cross, or like my brain might explode with screaming injustice or romantic strife – I felt OK by the end of it. Calm. Optimistic. Something would have made me laugh en route. A dog, or a crazed four-year-old freewheeling wildly on a scooter. Something would have struck me as pretty: a brightly painted padlock on some old railings. Or a man.
I uncovered some minor cons. One does have to get out of bed earlier – and one can get a bit sweaty. Also, cyclists rather hate pedestrians. But I kept going; Forrest Gump in skinny jeans. Ten years on, I have it down to a fine art. I’ve found that fitness shoes – MBTs and FitFlops – do intensify the impact, especially on your bottom. Now that Nike Air Max are laces-deep in a fashion moment, I’ve invested heavily. They do the job and they’re cool. I stash proper lady shoes in a (leather) rucksack – though I still struggle with the etiquette on when and how to make the shoe switch; it’s hard to do it on the street without feeling weirdly vulnerable and exposed.
My walking habit dictates most other aspects of my style. It’s the reason I got so heavily into leather (such a hard-wearing, all-weather fabric) and never wear pencil skirts (too restrictive on a leg swing). And it’s the reason I won’t give up skinny jeans: they work with all manner of heel heights. Walking is the reason I’m a headphone fascist and have a vast coat collection; I wear coats for a longer proportion of the day than most people, so they’d better be good. I also possess an array of hats (a Cos cashmere beanie is my current choice), gloves (I often double up a wrist warmer over a leather glove) and scarves, all of which deliver on a practical front, without mitigating glamour.
I don’t approve of pedometers. I don’t care how many calories I’ve burned at what pace. That’s not the point. I mean, I’m glad that walking keeps my weight stable, legs toned and heart in good nick. But all that is nothing compared with what it feels like to just walk. To wander through Regents Park and notice the seasons have shifted again. To amble past the same people – the old Greek guy in the dry cleaners, the cop patrolling the same stretch of street, the woman in MBTs who walks like I do, only in the other direction – and share old-school villagey moments of mutual acknowledgement. To feel properly connected to the place where you live, because you see all of it, every day, and it sees you too. That’s why I walk.