Health, open space and walking

What is it about open space, indeed about walking, that lifts my spirits and adds a spring to my step? The other day, when I escaped briefly from my lockdown, pandemic purgatory for some outdoor exercise, I instantly felt happy. Indoors I was the caged lion, outdoors I could have flown. As a medic, I started to think why.

Outdoor space, be it green, blue, white, or any colour imaginable, has for centuries been regarded as healthy. Urban planners now seek greenery, and even the World Health Organization thinks this is good. You do not need to be physically in open space to benefit. Seeing it through a window is sometimes all you need. Add walking to open space, and the benefits climb exponentially.

The walker’s town of Ambleside, seen from Wansfell Pike, and open space far beyond “Can walking be harmful?” said my companion, after we had struggled to the top of a Lake District fell, not so long ago. We had chosen Wansfell Pike, which looks down on the walker’s town of Ambleside, and separates it from the scenic village of Troutbeck.

“I can’t see how,” I gasped, not wishing to confess to my wobbly legs and erratic breathing. “I cannot imagine why walking would ever be bad.”

From our rocky seat, we could see the full 18-kilometre length of Windermere beneath us. It is England’s largest natural lake, and the definition of open space.

“Walking is good for the mind,” I said, “and fantastic for creative thinking.” Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame were, or are, famous for their walking meetings. So many of us solve our problems by walking. Dilemma at work or relationship struggling? Try a ramble. People do it the world over.

The benefits of walking are huge. As little as a mile daily can lower blood pressure and substantially reduces the chance of a stroke. It can also lengthen life, especially if you walk a little faster. And bones, them bones, are strengthened by a regular stroll, reducing the risk of hip fracture by an easy 40%.

Looking south from Wansfell Pike, with Windermere below - the far distance is 50 kilometres The scientists have shown that walking strengthens muscles, improves sleep, lowers blood sugar, boosts energy, improves the outcomes of pregnancy, and definitely slows down mental decline. And Alzheimer’s? For men aged between 71 and 93 years, those who walk the most have the least chance of dementia.

Immunity is important, too. Walking for 30-45 minutes each day results in 43% fewer sick days, and milder symptoms should you fall ill. Regular exercise, and that includes walking, significantly augments the immune response to vaccination. What better news for mid-pandemic? Once you have had your Covid-19 vaccination, put on those shoes and start walking, through rain, tempest or shine.

“How about losing weight?” asked my companion, now that my breathing had settled, and I was able to make sense.

“It’s difficult,” I replied. “Many feel that more exercise is all you require. Actually, you need to stop guzzling.”

My companion looked taken aback by my apparent brutality.

Walk, whenever you have the chance (Mikko Lemola_Getty Images) “A single pound of human fat contains 3500 kilocalories,” I explained. “That is nearly nine hours of flat walking, at 400 kilocalories per hour. I indicated Wansfell Pike around us. “If you climbed this four times,” I added, “you might lose a single pound. I’m not sure that walking for weight loss is a guaranteed result.”

My companion was now properly upset, although to look at their stick-insect frame meant they had no need to worry.

“How about those who cannot walk?” my companion next sought. “I’m thinking of arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and other problems, too.”

“It’s harder,” I acknowledged, “but not impossible. In the Lakes we have Miles without Stiles. Forty-eight routes, of different standards. Plenty are suitable for wheelchairs.”

If it all gets too much, try walking (nensuria_Getty Images) Our brief stop in the open space of Wansfell Pike’s summit, with Windermere’s flat expanse laid out below, had done what walks should do. We had been thinking, talking, chatting and interacting. Walking is an activity that is as good for the individual as it is for the group.

Up there we were a long way from any pollution, with an easy 50-kilometre view. High above us, as we began our downward stumble, I saw a buzzard soar, looking for its next meal. Walking had also connected us with Nature.

So, when you next feel low, or even if you do not, put on those shoes, boots if you desire, and walk. It does not need to be a mountain, just find some open space, wherever your home is located. Put one foot after the other, with company if you wish, and simply get started.

I doubt you will be disappointed.

If you go

Coronavirus – be sure to check each of these suggestions before you go, in light of any pandemic restrictions in place on the day. These change frequently.

Further information

Visit Cumbria

Lake District National Park

The Walk

If you feel the urge and wish to take in the view from the summit of Wansfell Pike, try getting there in time for sunrise. Please be silent, as I love this place, and may even join you. The route I walk almost daily starts in Ambleside town centre. You can find it here.

Total distance: 11 kilometres

Going underfoot: A mixture of track, road, rock and slippery fell. Bring spikes if you see ice or snow. Always carry a fully charged mobile telephone.

Time: Allow 2 to 3.5 hours

You can also do the whole thing from Troutbeck, as the route is circular. If you find walking a struggle, whatever the reason, think about Miles without Stiles. You can find them here.

Getting there

Rail to Windermere (London: 3 hours 7 mins; Manchester: 1 hour 44 mins) with taxi from there.

Drive (283 miles from London; 89 miles from Manchester) to Ambleside.


Ambleside: There is a Pay and Display in central Ambleside. Its postcode is LA22 9AY, with more details here.

Troutbeck: There is plenty of free parking.

Staying there

For Ambleside: Ambleside Salutation

For Troutbeck: Look no further than High Fold Guest House, dead centre of Troutbeck (LA23 1PG). They call it a hidden gem. Brilliantly run by Jackie Cartigny.

Address: High Fold Guest House, Troutbeck, Cumbria, LA23 1PG
Telephone: 015394 55783

Eating there

For Ambleside: You are spoiled for choice. My favourite is Zeffirellis.

Address: Zeffirellis, 2. Compston Road, Ambleside, LA22 9DJ
Telephone: 015394 33845

For Troutbeck: There is less choice, but this is a Lakeland village. Try the Mortal Man, an ale house since 1689.

Address: The Mortal Man, Troutbeck, Cumbria, LA23 1PL
Telephone: 015394 33193

Do not miss

Grasmere Gingerbread – (Grid reference: NY334507; LA22 9SW)

Windermere cruise – departs from Ambleside (LA22 0EY), Bowness (LA23 3HQ), or Lakeside (LA12 8AS)

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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