Walk away from heart disease

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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.

As a former cardiac nurse, I’ve had first-hand experience of some of the more dramatic measures routinely taken to save lives.

Which is why I often wonder why another life-saving treatment for hearts is so under-rated: walking.

It’s a sad reality of desk-bound and screen-dominated modern life that more than half of Australians are too sedentary. The cost to the Australian economy of physical inactivity is around $13.8 billion a year. 

The range of illnesses linked with low physical activity and sitting too much include coronary heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity and depression. Walking helps fight all of them.

Walking for an average of 30 minutes a day can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke by 35 per cent.  Walking for two and a half hours a week has been linked to a 30 per cent decrease in risk of death from type 2 diabetes, and a 20 per cent reduced risk of death from breast cancer and colon cancer.  Brisk walking also helps reduce blood pressure, improves mental health and can help manage weight.

What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Walking has been shown to stave off the decline in memory, planning and thinking skills that can occur with ageing. It also reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

While walking helps our hearts manage their core job of pumping blood round our bodies, there is also evidence that it helps mend the “broken” or “troubled” heart by easing sorrowful feelings.

With a recent survey noting that one in four Australians are lonely almost all the time or on a regular basis, it’s also interesting to consider some recently published research on the membership of Heart Foundation walking groups.

Published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, this study indicated that three-quarters of the 22,500 people surveyed had joined a Heart Foundation walking group because they wanted to improve their fitness and health.

But once they had started walking in a group, it was the social aspect that kept them going.

Reading this, I thought of one of the Heart Foundation’s most popular walkers: a woman who joined Heart Foundation Walking at the age of 77 to support her husband, who needed to walk because of his heart problems.

After his death, in 2000, she stayed on and continued walking five days a week. The walking group, she explained, saved her from becoming depressed.

A 2017 University of Newcastle study of 2100 over-55s emphasised the significant health benefits to older Australians of walking an extra 4300 steps a day.

The research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, focused on 2100 Australians aged over 55 and showed a clear link between increased walking and decreased hospitalisation rates.

Finally, walking can be done by those who are neither young, nor fit, nor affluent, nor city or town-based.

As Heart Foundation walking group membership attests, walking programs also cater for groups rarely seen in expensive fitness centres: older people, those on low incomes and those who are overweight.

And it is people who are struggling with disadvantage or who are living in rural and remote areas who need walking most of all.

As Heart Foundation research has shown, the death rate from coronary heart disease is 50 per cent higher in people living in the most disadvantaged parts of Australia than it is for residents of our richest areas. Similarly, the death rate from coronary heart disease is 60 per cent higher for Australians living in rural and remote areas than it is for city people.

Walking is free, requires no special clothing or equipment and can be worked into most people’s daily routines, the only cost a small amount of will power.

Walkers can clock up steps by simply taking a walk during their lunch break, getting off the bus, tram or train a few stops earlier or parking a few blocks away from their destination and walking. They can even walk the kids to school.

From 1 November, walking could also give you the chance to win great prizes, as we launch a six-week walking challenge. Find out more at walking.heartfoundation.org.au.