Father Christmas and his reindeer have come and gone, leaving a trail of half-eaten carrots and a half-drunk glass of sickly sweet sherry. The presents have been opened, the turkey devoured and you're left with an over-tight waistband, six boxes of scented soap from your maiden aunts and a vaguely deflated feeling.
You could bury your head in your duvet and not come up until the New Year. Or you could put your friends to shame, with their New Year's resolution gym memberships they'll only use twice, and put your best foot forward. Most of us know that regardless of what other bad habits we have, regular exercise can have a huge impact on our risk of type 2 diabetes (1) and heart disease. (2) It probably goes without saying that if we all did half an hour of exercise, five times a week, as a nation we'd have less of a problem with obesity. Weight-bearing exercise (pretty much anything except swimming) is important for warding off osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. But the link with depression is a little less obvious. In fact, there's a mounting body of evidence that being active can help treat, as well as stave off, depression, which affects up to two in three people over a lifetime. Even when all the other factors that might influence your mood are taken into account, being active cuts your risk of feeling hopeless (3) - and in these cash-strapped times, what better way to look after mind and body than getting out for free into the Great British countryside for a bracing walk.
Put aside all your prejudices about ramblers with their wooly socks and sensible shoes. They could have the last laugh, because they are privy to a secret all too many of us have forgotten - walking, as Morris and Hardman put it in 1997, is the nearest activity to perfect exercise.
Every year, the Ramblers' Association invites all of us to discover the joys of walking, with their Festival of Winter Walks over the Christmas and New Year period. Teaming up with Walking for Health volunteers, they're offering a network of guided walks along routes aimed at every age and ability - there for the taking and free. They're hoping to tempt would-be walkers in their twenties and thirties with festive-themed walks; families with small kids (or those of us with the stamina of a three year old!) with walks under five miles and the seasoned walker with a host of longer treks all across England, Wales and Scotland.
If you haven't been exercising for a while, you may want to start with a gentle stroll, but as long as you get your heart rate and breathing going a bit faster and feel mildly warmed up and slightly out of puff, walking can give you all the health benefits of more strenuous exercise. The Ramblers Association are hard at work campaigning for better legal access to public rights of way across our beautiful British countryside, and their website offers practical advice on what to wear and what to take with you, as well as how to borrow maps from your local library if you don't want to invest in buying them at the outset.
Making New Year's resolutions is the easy bit - sticking to them is much easier if you're doing something you enjoy. Rambling in a group offers a ready-made target time and place to start, but you may find yourself more motivated if you rope in a friend and enjoy a chat along the way. Do yourself a favour and make it easier to set yourself a target for a healthier new you.
1) Laaksonen DE, Lakka HM, Salonen JT, Niskanen LK, Rauramaa R, Lakka TA. Low levels of leisure-time physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness predict development of the metabolic syndrome. Diabetes Care. 2002;25:1612-1618.
2) Berlin JA, Colditz GA. A meta-analysis of physical activity in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Am J Epidemiol. 1991;134:232-234
3) Valtonen M et al. Leisure-time physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness and feelings of hopelessness in men. BMC Public Health. 2009; 9: 204.
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