The walking cure

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Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM

Group CEO, National Heart Foundation of Australia
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John joined the Heart Foundation in August 2016. Previous to that, he led sector reform for aged care as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia. He has extensive clinical, management and consulting background in the health sector, including previous careers in law and in cardiac nursing and current academic appointments with the Sydney Nursing School and the University of Technology, Sydney.

The Heart Foundation is embarking on a major campaign with a simple but vital goal. We want Australians back on their feet – and walking for their lives. The Walk away from a Killer campaign, launched in partnership with NewsCorp, challenges Australians to turn their backs on the nation’s biggest killer, heart disease, and to literally walk away.

We’ve chosen this strategy because we believe enough is enough. We’re tired of seeing the nation’s mothers, fathers, partners, friends and children lose their lives, or the quality of those lives, to a disease that is preventable for many people, yet whose human and financial costs are enormous. Instead, we are encouraging Australians of all ages, fitness levels and walks of life to join the Heart Foundation Walking program, and to take a first tentative step – or, for some, a giant leap – into a healthier, happier future.

The campaign is forthright, emotional and ultimately optimistic. It reminds people that while heart disease kills 48 Australians a day, there is a simple, powerful remedy available to most of us, if only we choose to embrace it.

From a public health perspective, walking is one of the most potent weapons we have. Around half an hour a day – in one go, or in three 10-minute sessions – can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke by 33 percent, and Type 2 diabetes by 30 per cent. Brisk walking helps reduce blood pressure. Regular walking strengthens our muscles and bones and helps prevent falls and injuries. Walking also protects against age-related declines in learning and memory, halves the risk of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), counters depression, reduces stress and boosts self-esteem.

The Heart Foundation has long been promoting the benefits of this miracle drug. For 23 years, through our free Heart Foundation Walking program, we’ve been encouraging Australians to take that first step. And then the next. And the next. These days there are more than 1100 walking groups across the country – covering a huge range of terrains, distances, fitness levels and ages, each led by a volunteer Walk Organiser. Others who prefer to walk solo use the Heart Foundation Walking app to count steps and track their progress – and, if they want, that of other walkers.

Since the program’s launch, more than 100,000 people have joined Heart Foundation Walking, collectively covering millions of kilometres and forging many friendships along the way. It’s a decision that has saved lives and changed many more. But it is not enough.

Australia is in a crisis of inactivity. More than half of all adults (56%) and three quarters of those over 65 don’t move enough to stay healthy. The average Australian adult sits for nine hours a day. Physical inactivity increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes by 25-30 per cent. It shortens our lives by two to five years.  Based on years of life lost, it is responsible for 20 per cent of our nation’s burden of heart and blood vessel disease.

The economic costs are also daunting. A global analysis estimates the cost of physical inactivity in Australia at $805 million a year, much of it related to spending on healthcare. And yet we know that if we can convince every Australian to take a brisk 15-minute walk five days a week, we can slash our chronic disease burden due to physical inactivity by an estimated 13 per cent. Double that if we extend the walk to 30 minutes.

When it comes to walking, a little goes a long way, and a little more goes even further.

But we at the Heart Foundation are also aware that Australia cannot yet boast an even walking track.  People in socio-economically disadvantaged areas (with limited facilities and infrastructure) are considerably less likely than their more privileged counterparts to be active enough to stave off illness and infirmity. They are also 50 per cent more likely to die of coronary heart disease than those in the richest post codes. The gap is even wider (60 per cent) between city and country.

This is why the Walk Away from a Killer campaign, while targeting all Australians, focuses particularly on reaching groups whose disadvantage is magnified by this participation gap. This includes older and Indigenous Australians, those from non-English speaking backgrounds, and people in rural and remote Australia and other regions of social and economic disadvantage.

The challenge for this campaign is to reach into communities across the nation, and to inspire Australians to go to our website and join or set up a walking group, and/or to download our app and enter Australia’s biggest step challenge.

The challenge for the rest of Australia is to look clearly at the killer among us – and to walk away.