In my last column I emphasised the benefits of walking and hinted at the need for Walking Plus but why do we need Walking Plus and what do we mean by Plus?
Walking is wonderful but its benefit is primarily on stamina, This aspect of fitness focuses on the body’s ability to get enough oxygen when required to do extra work, and this depends principally on the fitness of the lungs, heart, and circulatory system. The ageing process affects both these systems but for most people affected by breathlessness, the cause is not ageing but a combination of loss of fitness and disease.
The heart becomes unfit as a result of inactivity, namely, failure to increase the pulse rate for thirty minutes at least three times a week.
For the respiratory system, the effects of inactivity and loss of fitness are not so much on the lungs as on structures within the muscle cells, called mitochondria, which extract oxygen from the blood as it passes through. However, for too many people breathlessness is not the consequence of ageing but of disease, heart and lung disease caused by our environment and lifestyle and people who smoke should try to stop no matter how often they have tried in the past and no matter their age. There are however three other aspects of fitness – strength, suppleness and skill
Ageing affects the muscles and muscle strength reduces every year However, the studies that demonstrate these trends are conducted on people who live the Western lifestyle, so how much of the change that takes place is due to ageing and how much to loss of fitness is unclear. From studies demonstrating how strength can be increased by training in the seventies and eighties, it is reasonable to assume that a considerable proportion of loss of strength is due to loss of fitness, and is therefore preventable and recoverable. Walking increases the strength of the lower limbs but it is essential to maintain and improve the strength of the upper limbs and the core muscles of your abdominal wall and spine which we will describe later
This is probably the least well recognised aspect of fitness, even in young active sportsmen and sportswomen. Just look at a leg of lamb and you can clearly see white connective tissue surrounding the muscles connecting them to bones as tendons, and connecting the bones to one another as ligaments.
The chemical called collagen, that is in the tissue in tendons and ligaments, loses elasticity with age but, as with the loss of muscular strength, the evidence is derived from the study of people leading a Western, sedentary, lifestyle.
Even people who are active at home and work rarely move their muscles, tendons and ligaments through the full range of movements.
In societies in which exercise like Tai Chi is universal, however, it is clear that at least some of the loss of suppleness is the result of failure to stretch. In Japan, participation in exercises derived from martial arts such as Kendo are widespread and contribute to its very active society of people over seventy. In the west, the rise of interest in, and evaluation of Yoga, the Alexander Technique, and Pilates classes demonstrate that suppleness can be maintained and improved at any age.
The ability to perform complicated tasks is a skill and although the term is usually used to describe the abilities of a craftsman or artist or pianist, skill is important in everyday life. The ability to stand on one leg while putting a stocking on the other is a skill, as is the ability to estimate and then step accurately from a bus to the pavement, as well as more intricate skills such as sewing, or repairing a fuse.
Skill requires both muscular strength and coordination by the nervous system, so the skill that is lost as a result of inactivity is another aspect of loss of fitness.
However, as with other aspects of fitness loss, loss of skill can be prevented by keeping active and recovered by training, namely, the repetition of the skill, and related activities. For example, to maintain and improve the skill of recovery from a stumble, daily balance exercises, supplemented by social activities such as dancing, maintain and improve the muscular and neurological skills require to recover from a trip on an irregular pavement.
Plus every morning
We will give you examples over the next few weeks of the exercises you need to do to complement the benefits of walking – you need ten minutes a day for strength, suppleness and skill plus your thirty or three times ten minute periods of extra walking.
About the author: Professor Sir Muir Gray, CBE
Muir Gray consults for springchicken.co.uk, the lifestyle website for older adults.
He recently described himself (in a tweet) as the Don Quixote of the NHS: “tilting, always tilting.” As Chief Knowledge Officer of the NHS, his job was defined by what he does—promoting improved care by the better use of evidence. Born, raised, and educated in Glasgow, he was a surgeon before he turned to public health in the 1970s. In the rest of his life he is developing Better Value Healthcare, whose mission is to publish handbooks and development programmes designed to get more value from health care resources in England, and worldwide.
Muir’s most recent book: Sod 70, the guide to living well is available here>>>. He is also the Director of the National Campaign for Walking, is married with two daughters and lives in Oxford.