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Breaking down barriers to staying active: The Walking for Wellbeing Project

My name is Francesca and I run the Walking for Wellbeing Project with the Oxfordshire Mental Health Partnership. For those of you who don’t know about us, Walking for Wellbeing runs friendly, accessible walking groups leaving from local mental health services, aimed at getting people with severe mental health conditions active.

Getting active and staying active is hard enough at the best of times, but for people with long-term mental health struggles, these challenges are only amplified.  Despite this, over the year or so the project has been running I have been in awe of the dedication that our walkers have brought to the walks, and the determination they have shown in taking this important step to improve their physical health.

This hasn’t changed during the Covid-19 crisis.  I have been keeping in touch with some of my regular walkers via phone throughout this period, and despite the fresh challenges that lockdown has brought our way, many of them are still finding new and creative ways to keep active. So I thought I’d share some of the strategies they’ve told me about, as well as some advice from me, on how to keep up your physical activity during these difficult times.

  • Go with a friend– You’re more likely to stick to whatever exercise you’ve planned if you have company. Could one of the people in your household do it with you? Or, if you both agree and are able to obey the government guidelines, perhaps you could go on a distanced walk with a friend or support worker, rather than catching up over the phone?
  • Try something new– Now is a good time to try a new activity from the comfort of your home (there’s lots of great ideas here: https://www.sportengland.org/stayinworkout#get_active_at_home) , or explore an area of your neighbourhood that you’ve never been to before on a walk. That way you will focus more on the fact that it is a new thing rather than the fact it is exercise.
  • Have fun- The key is tricking your brain so that it feels like adventure rather than a chore. You could look on your daily walk as an expedition. Spend some time planning routes with a map or an app to get yourself excited, and pack a backpack with supplies, including a healthy snack as a reward.  Or you could do some dancing around your kitchen to your favourite cheesy songs. These things might sound lame, but the beauty of isolation is that no one will ever know you’re doing them, so you might as well!
  • Refocus your mind– physical activity can provide temporary relief from difficult thoughts and a welcome distraction, especially if you combine it with some form of mindfulness. You can download meditations to do while exercising from many mainstream mindfulness apps. If you’re not able to spend money on that, some simple things you can do involve focussing on the rhythm of your steps while walking, trying to spot particular flowers or wildlife, or focussing on your breathing while running (which will also help with your performance).
  • Physical activity isn’t just exercise – Many things that you wouldn’t expect count towards your physical activity total for the day, including some chores. You might be surprised how much you’re doing already- walking into town to pick up shopping or a prescription counts!
  • Baby steps– these are challenging times. A lot of very difficult feelings are only going to be reinforced by the current situation. There will be days where getting out of bed feels like an achievement, and that’s ok. Set yourself small, realistic goals – can you walk to the end of your garden, or to the end of your street? The key is doing something—and once you’ve got started, it’s often easier to keep going. But if today is just not the day for it, be gentle with yourself, and don’t feel bad about it. You can always try again another time. 

Finally, if you would like more encouragement around staying active during lockdown, Walking for Wellbeing is currently running a weekly Virtual Walking Newsletter. It features tips and encouragement from me, my volunteers and walkers, as well as a description of a walk around a picturesque location, to help give you some of the feeling of going for a walk together, even though we’re not able to meet in person.  You can sign up using the mailing list link below.