I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the various rewards that drive so many of us to walk in our leisure time. In England alone, more than 9 million of us walk recreationally at least once a month, making walking more popular than going to the gym or swimming. And in a poll of adults in 2011 that asked people to name the things that bring them most pleasure, walking came in at number 25 ahead of eating chocolate, eating cake and the smell of freshly baked bread.
So what is it that gives walking its widespread appeal? Well, I suspect it has a lot to do with the variety of rewards that walking brings to people. It really can be all things to all people.
One slice of this common appeal is the sense of achievement that walking brings. Even within the realm of achievement there are many facets which appeal to different groups of people. Some measure their achievement through the distance they have walked, others through the heights of the peaks they have scaled. Peak bagging describes the popular activity where mountaineers attempt to reach the summit of a collection of peaks in a particular region.
Which brings me on to the next facet of achievement: completion of a tick list. Similar to bird watching, some walkers measure their achievement through the completion of certain routes or the reaching of certain points. Many walkers work their way through the highest peaks in Britain, whilst others take on the numerous long distance paths. Some say that this approach devalues the actual experience of walking in favour of reaching an arbitrary point on a map, but I say each to their own. You see, that is the joy of walking, you can tailor it to suit your own needs.
A further sense of achievement for some is the successful navigation of a route. Armed with a map and compass people can derive a real sense of satisfaction from being able to navigate across remote terrain. Orienteering courses are set for those who crave this type of achievement and, more recently, the popular sport of geocaching tests participants’ navigational skills with the reward of ‘treasure’ to be found at the end of the trail.
In an age where we are constantly aware of healthy and unhealthy lifestyles, exercise forms part of our conscious decisions on how to stay fighting fit. Within the realms of physical activity, walking has many clear benefits. It is inexpensive with no entrance fees or membership fees required and the ‘kit’ can be as simple as a good pair of walking shoes. Compared with the gym, swimming or cycling the costs are minimal. Walking is also particularly accessible, being equally available to those in rural and urban areas. For those starting from a low level of fitness or recovering from injury, walking also offers a low impact way of improving stamina, cardio-fitness and strength. For those wanting more of a challenge hill climbing increases the cardio workout and some people move on to Nordic Walking with the use of walking poles, offering the chance to use muscles in the entire body.
For many, this achievement driven approach is simply not required. Indeed for many, the entire purpose of walking is to escape the rat race and the constant need to achieve. Being close to nature and having the space and time to reflect on life gives most people a sense of quietness and relaxation that is hard to find elsewhere. With such a wide range of landscapes in the UK, there is time to appreciate the most unspoilt rural areas as well as man-made features such as parks and forests. And every landscape tells as story as you are taken on a journey through history with Iron Age hillforts, ancient burial mounds, monastery ruins and old mine workings littered across the countryside.
So, whatever appeal walking holds for you, you can be sure of one thing: you are certainly not alone.
Claire, Co-founder, iFootpath, www.ifootpath.com