Take it in your stride like SJP and Sandra: how walking got cool

Famous walkers include Sandra Bullock, Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Clare Balding. Susan Gray reports on how walking got cool and the benefits for your body, brain and boobs

Walking has found a new groove. Whether it’s Emmy award-winning Julia Dreyfus celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with a mountain hike, or a sleek Davina McCall scaling Scafell Pike for Sport Relief, walking has never looked so cool.

On the silver screen, Helen Hunt is associated with surfing, through directing and starring in her latest film, Ride. But in real life Hunt swaps her board for boots. She was recently spotted on a challenging walk with her family in Fryman’s Canyon, California.

In a more downtown setting, Sandra Bullock power walks the pavements of New York. And Manhattan resident Sarah Jessica Parker is famous for walking her twins to school in a medley of wedges, trainers, and indeed wedged trainers, come blizzard, heatwave or paparazzi.

Walking to de-stress

As these celebrities know full well, walking does not just get you physically fit, it nourishes the mind and the soul. In her autobiography Walking Home, My Family and Other Rambles, Clare Balding describes how walking helped her to decompress from the stress of being the face of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

After the medal-winners’ open-top bus parade finished, Clare turned her back on the complementary BBC car, and walked home from Trafalgar Square, striding out the tension of the 24/7 spotlight of the previous month.

Presenting Radio 4’s walking programme, Ramblings, for 15 years gives Clare an insight into the deeply therapeutic value of walking. She drew on this aspect of walking after her beloved Tibetan terrier Percy was run over outside her Chiswick home.

“We trudged in silence, tears blurring our vision, until Ruby [Clare’s mother’s dog] snuffled up, her back end waggling with joy. We had to smile at her and we had to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, away from the ghastliness of what we had witnessed.”

Walking boosts your brain and body

The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has tremendous creative power. Wordsworth composed his poems while walking in the Lake District.

More recently, Millennium Poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way penniless, reciting poetry in pubs and village halls in return for and a bed for the night and a meal. Armitage’s troubadour journey became his bestselling, non-fiction book Walking Home.

Composers also draw on walks as an integral part of the creative process. Mahler and Erik Satie were obsessive walkers. Tchaikovsky believed something terrible would happen if he did not have two hours of country walking everyday.

Former Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies writes his music while walking, and his music is a sort of personal songline through his favourite walking routes from his house on Sanday in the Orkneys; music as landscape as music.

Conversations are always better when walking. Possibly this is the reason why so many deals are struck on the golf course.

World at One presenter Martha Kearney often goes on country walks with political interviewees, as a way of delving beneath the spin and the media training, to reveal the real human underneath.

Day-to-day life is enhanced by stepping out in the open air

Walking in nature boosts our mood far more than we anticipate, according to Canadian research in which students were asked to predict how much walking a scenic route to lectures would affect their mood.

Most felt the effect would be negligible. But in fact the students who took the natural landscaped route, felt far more positive and less stressed than a control group who crossed campus through corridors and tunnels.

With two-thirds of Britons not being physically active enough, according to The Lancet, walking is now being advocated by doctors as a way to get fit or fitter.

As an exercise, it gives the knees and ankles less of a hammering than running, but lowers blood pressure and increases stamina in just the same way.

Dawn French characteristically credits her recent four stone weight loss to “loads more walking and loads less eating”.

Every morning she walks up a hill near her house in Fowey. “I used to puff to get up, but now sometimes I climb it twice. My elderly dog’s a bit shocked because he’d only like to walk half of it.”

Walking positively welcomes and rewards late adopters

Researchers at the Paris Gustave Roussy cancer research institute found that starting recreational exercise in your 50s cuts the likelihood of developing breast cancer by ten per cent. Simply taking a 30-minute ramble every day wipes the couch potato decades slate clean within two years.

Many a former sportsphobe has found strength and stamina they never knew existed, through walking. I’m one of them.

For urban walks you can still glam up in Sweaty Betty capris and racer backs, and watch traffic stop, because you look like the sort of vital person who can cross a road fast.

Zooming along the pavement also frees you from the entreaties of nosy neighbours, Big Issue sellers and chuggers.

Woman setting a fast pace get respect in the city. Try it: fast walking changes the way you feel about where you live and work. (When Barack Obama first met George W Bush, he said the former president’s walking speed gave the impression of somebody with important things to do.)

Fast country walking brings the endorphin rush of speed, and the mood lift of being in green nature. To blend in with the locals and the landscape, it’s an idea to tone down the dayglo and Lycra.

A friend who farms in the South Downs says he always smiles at walkers ascending the hill where he exercises his dog “decked out as if they were going to climb K2″. Think Zara Phillips watching horses or Land Rovers (not at a charity dinner) and you will nail the look instantly.

Navigation can appear to be more of an issue in the country than the town. But as someone with no natural sense of direction, who gets lost in Selfridges, common sense and a tolerance of detours will get you back on track.

As new nature writer Robert Macfarlane points out in The Old Ways, most of the paths beaten by our ancestors connected important places, so it’s just a matter of continuing walking until you reach one of them. And wherever you end up on a walk, you are always in a better place than when you started.

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