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Walking more can boost fitness and mental health, says PHA

People should think about increasing their daily step count to help boost their physical and mental health, the Public Health Agency (PHA) has said.

In Northern Ireland, two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight, with a quarter of children similarly affected. But experts say small changes can make a big difference. Dr Hannah McCourt said simple moves such as walking, gardening and getting outside with children could be incorporated into daily lives. She told BBC News NI the average number of daily steps in Northern Ireland was between 3,000-4,000. “We would like to see people increasing their steps and their physical activity,” she said. Dr McCourt, a senior health and social well-being improvement officer with the PHA, said that as well as being completely free, walking could be incorporated into leisure time and daily routines. By 2030 it is thought an additional 11m adults across the UK will be obese and possibly living with obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. That increase will place further pressure on the health service as more people especially older people will require treatment. Walking for health, according to the NHS, is often overlooked as a form of exercise. But walking briskly can help build stamina, burn excess calories and make your heart healthier.

Banter and football

Tackling physical and mental health conditions is something the Hillsborough Ages – a local walking football group – is taking on board. Based in Lisburn in County Antrim, the club which has 32 members, meets twice a week to play walking five-a-side football. Players are not allowed to run, head the ball or play it at head height. The aim is keeping people aged over 50 involved with football if they are no longer able to play the traditional form of the game. Bobby Jackson set up the team and said it had grown from strength to strength. “Every single one of these players has a physical or mental health issue,” he said. “Some can no longer run due to knee and hip problems, others have mental health issues such as depression. “It’s get them out of the house, it keeps them moving and talking, the banter is great we have a laugh and we all love football.” Team member Barry Hooke is 52 and is terminally ill with a brain tumour. He said as the ball is kept below head height he feels “safe enough to play in a team sport and the boys look after me, I love it”. There are more than 30 walking football clubs across Northern Ireland, with the number of women players increasing. Walking an additional 30 minutes a day can mean burning as much as an additional 1,000 calories a week. Diet is important too. “A brisk walk can reduce anxiety, help manage weight, lower your blood pressure and can help you sleep better” Dr McCourt said. The advice is to gradually increase steps over time in order to feel the benefits. Simple tips include getting off the bus a few stops earlier or parking the car a little further away and then walking a little extra. While moving will increase steps, the good work will be undone if people are not watching their calorie intake. In its 2021 obesity prevention campaign, the PHA advised anyone who is overweight to reduce their portion sizes.


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