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Taking steps to keeping active

With a level four lockdown in place, there will be many people in Wales wondering how to keep fit, active and stress-free over the Christmas period.

The return of the strictest form of restrictions means many of the more familiar activities – the organised fun runs like Parkrun, the mass gathering dips in the sea at various beaches, even just a trip to your local football or rugby club on Boxing Day to blow away the festive indulgences – will be off limits this year.

With gyms and leisure centres also closing, for most people it will be back to the solo or family group exercises which became part of their routine earlier this summer.

That was when many people discovered – or reminded themselves – of the simple joys of walking.

After all, what could be more straightforward, than simply getting wrapped up, opening your front door and getting some fresh air in your lungs, whether you live in city, town or countryside.

It’s easy, it’s free, and it offers a simple way out if you’re starting to feel trapped and weighed down by too much TV and mince pies.

There are some sensible essentials to consider: good walking shoes, or at least comfortable and waterproof trainers; a waterproof jacket for when the weather turns Welsh; some fluids to keep you hydrated; and if you’re heading out after dark then stick to well-lit areas or wear some reflective clothing.

The rest is up to you. It can be a speed walk to offer some strenuous activity – as little as 15 minutes done at a pace that burns calories – or a two-hour stroll to build endurance or simply offer time to unwind.

The NHS website page, Walking for Health (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/walking-for-health/) suggests a walking speed of 3 mph – slightly faster than a stroll – will bring most health benefits.

A recent study this month published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine used data from people who had worn activity monitors to objectively track how much they moved and sat.

The researchers concluded that the sweet spot for physical activity and longevity seemed to arrive at about 35 minutes a day of brisk walking, or other moderate activities, an amount that led to the greatest statistical improvement in life span, no matter how many hours someone sat.

Variety in walking is the key to making it enjoyable and repeatable. Vary the route, mix up the duration and intensity and use it occasionally as an opportunity to explore.

Online maps and apps can provide not only route planning for regular footpaths, but websites such as rowmaps.com can show rights of way in your local area that you may not know even existed.

Researchers in Austria in 2017 discovered that most people find outdoor walking less strenuous than walking indoors on a treadmill, even when the distances and gradient were identical.

They also found that outdoor walking had a greater benefit in lifting a person’s mood compared to the same level of exercise indoors.

In recent years, “mindful walking” has been used by many people to improve their well-being and mental health.

This involves being actively aware of yourself, your movements, and your surroundings as your walk.

Psychologists and psychotherapists who promote mindful walking suggest you begin by focusing your awareness on your stance, your balance, the feelings of being anchored to the ground as you stride, and also your breathing.

They say you can then move on to noticing your surroundings, the landscape, the trees and flowers, the noises, smells and tastes, and that by noticing these things, as if for the first time, it becomes a useful technique to take you away from other stresses and worries while you’re on the move.

That might be one to try if you’re walking the dog on Boxing Day, wishing you were back in the gym.

With the level four restrictions in Wales due to extend for at least three weeks into the new year, then walking away the January blues might just be the best option.

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