Good for heart and mind


It seems a simple idea but it has turned into a great success story. A few years ago, the chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation, Paddy Murphy, was desperately trying to think of a novel way to help reduce heart disease in Ireland - at 60.7 in 100,000 deaths in a year, it is double the EU average - when he came up with the Sli na Slainte (path to health) concept. Basically a set of brightly coloured signs set one kilometre apart along popular walking routes, the Sli idea has captured the public's imagination.

"If it had been a product I patented myself, I would be a millionaire now," he says, joking. He explains the logic behind the marking of routes: "There are four main risk factors in heart disease: undetected high blood pressure, smoking, an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. People get irritated when you repeat the message about the dangers of smoking or unhealthy eating so I wanted to tap into something more positive. I've always been an exercise buff myself and am acutely aware of people's love for a challenge. I wanted to utilise this need to be challenged to get people walking more." So, back in 1994 when Green Party TD John Gormley was Mayor of Dublin, Paddy Murphy proposed putting signs at kilometre intervals along the seafront from Sutton to Clontarf to allow people to measure the distance they walked. Having received a positive response from the Gormley, he then approached city and county councils throughout the country. Two years later, Sli na Slainte signs were in place in 12 urban and county councils including Dublin Corporation, Fingal County Council, Cork, Galway and Limerick city councils. "Since then, all the local authorities want to be involved and nearly all of then have Sli signs in place," Murphy says. The routes are mapped out in consultation with local walkers who choose safe, popular walks for the Sli signs. There are currently 60 Sli routes throughout Ireland.

The idea is that people will put on their coats and caps and walk from their front door instead of driving somewhere to walk which takes more time and effort and therefore happens less frequently. More recently, the Dublin suburban train network, DART, has produced a map of the Sli routes which run alongside its north-south axis, while the Vocational Education Committee organise Sli walking group leader workshops. Weightwatchers also use the Sli walks as part of their exercise programme and have gone so far as to set up a Sli challenge through which members can receive a Sli pin if they complete 500 kilometres on Sli routes within six months. The Irish Heart Foundation's scientific council is also investigating the viability of doctors near Sli routes giving "exercise prescriptions" with patient leaflets that show how far to walk when recovering from a heart attack or hip replacement, for example. Through his work with the World Heart Foundation, Paddy Murphy has introduced the Sli concept to other countries. Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are among the European countries which now have Sli signs in place while Britain, the US, South Africa, Norway and Australia are in the process of setting up the scheme. Known as Sli International, each country must follows guidelines set out by the Irish Heart Foundation so that visitors will recognise and know how the concept works if it exists in their home countries. Not content to rest on his laurels, Paddy Murphy is now thinking of other places to introduce the Sli concept. "The Irish Heart Foundation recommends that every Irish adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity every day and surveys have shown that walking is the preferred activity for 47 per cent of Irish people," he says. He believes that if you get into an exercise mode, it is easier to tackle the other risk factors in heart disease. "Exercise reduces heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety as well as making you feel good," he says. So his plan is to put up Sli signs in high-rise buildings so office workers can measure how much physical energy they would expend in climbing a four-flight stairs every day instead of taking the lift, for example. "That way, people can begin to accumulate their 30 minutes of exercise while at work," he says.

Also in discussion with the Irish Heart Foundation is the Dublin Transportation Office. Here, with one of the chief concerns being to reduce traffic congestion, the Sli concept has a particular appeal. "Up to now, Sli na Slainte has been associated with leisure but we want to get across the concept that exercise can be part of your working day," says Hazel Jones, a senior planner at the Dublin Transportation Office. "We hope to put signs up around the city to encourage business people to walk to meetings between the canals. For instance, we have found that from where we work in St Stephen's Green to the Docklands is only about 20 minutes walk which if you were to get a taxi would take you much longer."

Then, all we'll need is for it to stop raining.