On January 1st, I and thousands of others joined the #100daysofwalking challenge (started by Ciara Kelly on Newstalk), where we would attempt to walk every day until April 9th to get fresh air and keep fit, physically and mentally.
Of course, the world changed dramatically during that time and, when the challenge was over, many of us continued our daily quest using the hashtag #walkingthroughthecrisis to keep ourselves sane during lockdown and beyond. Updating each other with photos of our daily walks on social media, we soon learned that we were not alone in our quest to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
So while a growing number of people have been pounding the country roads, city streets, beachfronts and mountain paths throughout recent months, there is now an added incentive to get everyone out and about – National Walking Day, which takes place on September 27th as part of European Week of Sport and working with Ireland's network of Local Sports Partnerships.
Linda Sankey is the communications officer for GetIrelandWalking.ie (GIW) – a nationwide initiative supported by Healthy Ireland and delivered by Mountaineering Ireland, which aims to "unify and enable the efforts of all agencies and organisations interested in promoting walking".
"Six months into our new normal, we can all agree that the two most important tools used to sustain and facilitate living in a pandemic, have been Zoom and walking," she says. "We want to give everyone in Ireland the chance to participate on the day and look forward to a walk that is safe, social distanced and a chance to be physically active.
“You can walk whenever you want on that date and for as long as you want and in order to follow the latest Covid-19 guidelines, we are encouraging everyone to #WalkYourTown, #WalkYourArea and find #HiddenGems.”
Since it began as a pilot programme in 2013, Get Ireland Walking has expanded the number and scope of programmes offered and one of its key objectives is to provide sporting and physical activity opportunities to people of all ages and backgrounds.
“It links with Healthy Ireland’s goal to reduce health inequalities and Mountaineering Ireland’s values relating to recreation and wellbeing,” says Sankey. “The first Strategy and Action Plan was published to cover the period 2017 to 2020 and the 41 actions within this document are arranged into seven thematic areas which reflect the action areas of Ireland’s National Physical Activity Plan.
“Sport Ireland’s ongoing Covid19 research has shown the numbers of adults walking for recreation have increased throughout the crisis and is the equivalent to over 3.1 million regular walkers. We’ve definitely noticed an increase in people registering on our website – there are 1,472 registered walking groups, Irish Men’s Sheds, primary and secondary schools and GAA clubs.”
Mary Connolly can relate to this as she is part of a walking group in Mayo and says while she initially found it difficult to get used to walking on country roads after years of living in Galway city and walking the promenade, this year she made an effort to get out and about and hasn't looked back since.
"I didn't do much walking last year as I was pregnant (she has two children – Michaela,7 and Kealan, 1) and had some complications but this January, I promised myself I would get fit, so I started going out with Gortjordan Walkers, " she says.
“There are a lots of different age groups and levels of fitness so I could go at my own pace. After the first night, my legs were killing me, but as time went by, I felt my level of fitness and speed improving. Then Covid-19 arrived so the group had to stop but myself and my husband, Gerard, went walking every day with the children. This was great as it helped to pass the time, we got into a routine and the kids really loved it.”
Liz Murphy has also developed a walking habit and believes it is something everyone should try and work into their daily routine.
"I used to live in Dún Laoghaire and walked occasionally with a friend who was part of a walking group there," she says. "I really enjoyed it and once I got my fitness up, I really got into it as it was a great way of getting out and meeting people. We did lots of different routes such as Killiney Hill, out on the pier and along the sea front to Dalkey – and I used to walk to work every day.
"I have been living here in Dunmore East, Waterford, for a year and now I walk every single day for about two or three miles and then on Sunday, I do a big walk with a group of people and I really enjoy it."
The retired nurse says there are so many physical and mental benefits of walking and would encourage everyone to give it a try.
“I think it’s a great means of exercise for everyone,” she says. “Physically, there are so many positives and mentally, just getting out in the fresh air and throwing your worries into the wind is really good. It is also a great way to meet new people so there is a wonderful social aspect to it.
“I am fitter now than I ever was, even though I was always rushing about at work. I feel much better and sleep better too. So I would encourage others to try it – take it slowly at first and go for solo walks before joining a group. Of course we could all sit on our laurels and do nothing, but that would make life so boring – I honestly don’t think there are any downsides to getting out for a walk.”
Psychologist Peadar Maxwell agrees and says numerous studies confirm that not only is walking good for us physically and psychologically but we don't have to suffer or work too hard to get results.
“With the right medical advice, you will get fitter from vigorous exercise, but even a steady or comfortable pace of walking can help our mental health,” he says. “Walking has been linked to a better engagement in our environment and in life. It can be social with a companion or can also bring a sense of tranquillity if you want some mindful time alone.
“It’s also a great way to get in tune with nature and if you live in a built-up area it’s a chance to get to know the side streets, strands or parks near where your live. Walking is a gentle way to feel more in control of your own fitness, to help you to feel physically confident and to see the relationship between your lifestyle and your wellbeing.”