Why walking out is now in

Australian Financial Review

Saturday 15 May 2004
Author: Deirdre Macken


It's a simple exercise, really. You put one foot in front of the other and you get somewhere. Except for millions of Australians the getting there doesn't matter. It's the footwork that counts. Walking may be something we've done since we had hairs on the backs of our hands but the 21st century practice of walking is changing leisure activities, social habits, travel destinations, the town landscape and the nature of walking itself.


Putting one foot in front of the other is hot. Well, maybe not Britney Spears hot but it is one of the biggest leisure and health movements of the past few years. And it's the most overlooked trend, if only because there's not much money to be made from it, not a lot of brands want to connect with it and the media doesn't get excited about a sport that has Prime Minister John Howard as its master.


Still, the figures are staggering. In 2002, walking was nominated as their most popular physical activity by both men and women, with one third of women and 17.5per cent of men saying they regularly put on their walking shoes. Reflecting the rapid growth is the fact that in the two years to 2002, the number of women who walked for exercise jumped 45 per cent to 2.4 million and male devotees increased 34per cent to 1.25 million.


There are two main reasons why people are hitting the pavement (gently) and they revolve around health consciousness and ageing. The irony is that while millions are walking for pleasure, fewer are just walking around or walking to get places.


In the five years from 1996 to 2000 the number of people who walked to work dropped 22 per cent and dozens of health studies have shown people are taking fewer steps in their daily lives - that is, walking to the TV to turn it off or ambling over to a colleague's desk for a chat. Sydney University's Professor of Public Health, Adrian Bauman, suspects the daily constitutional has increased at the expense of incidental walking and therefore "we might be walking more but expending less energy overall".


So walking is evolving from a method of transport to a lifestyle activity.


We reserve our moments of ambulation for exercise sessions, for social occasions with friends, a mental rejuvenation session, a commune with nature or a respite from the pressures within the four walls. We might not be following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth, who spent much of his life on foot composing poetry, but it's clear that walking has come to mean something different to us.


Health is obviously the main reason for the walking boom. There are now well-established studies showing the benefits for hearts, lungs, bone densities, general fitness and mental wellbeing. But there was a particular tipping point that set people around the world onto the footpath, the bush tracks and along country roads.


"It was the 1996 US Surgeon General's report on physical education and health that set this in train and it had the same impact on exercise that the 1964 US Surgeon General's report on tobacco had on smoking," says Bauman.


"That report turned around the idea that you had to do 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week and found that more moderate forms of activity were just as good. In doing so, it opened up exercise to the whole population, not just those under-40s who belonged to gyms. It was an achievable behavioural change," Bauman says.


However, human habits don't change overnight. "It took a while to trickle through," he says. "Those sorts of statements have to filter through to other research, policy statements and government responses. Typically it takes six to 10 years to turn into general information in the community."


Indeed, in the late 1990s physical activity was still on the decline. From 1997 to 1999, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that those who did sufficient activity to stay healthy dropped from 62 per cent to 57 per cent. But as the health message of walking filtered through to the media, GPs and fitness centres, rates of physical activity throughout the community began to lift.


In the two years to 2002 the percentage of Australians who were physically active increased from 55 per cent to 62.5 per cent and the best turnarounds were among the middle-aged. Among those aged 45 to 54, the proportion of the physically active jumped from 48 to 60 per cent; for those aged 55-64 it jumped from 43 per cent to 58 per cent and for those over the age of 65 it lifted from 34 per cent to 45 per cent.


Middle-aged women, who are the keenest of walkers, took the health message to heart, or perhaps to the pavement. Those women aged 55 to 64 almost doubled their physical activity with the active jumping from 37 per cent to 60 per cent - a figure which puts 60-year-old women on par with women in their late 30s.


Harold Scruby of the Pedestrian Council has monitored the change of heart among the medical community, fitness experts and "those joggers of the '80s and '90s who realised that they might be making orthopaedic surgeons rich but they weren't doing much for themselves".


"The baby boomers can't run anymore," he says. "People get sick and tired of gyms; they realise they can just step out the front door and go for a walk. Also, walking wasn't sexy 20 years ago and now it's deemed to be. Well, maybe not sexy but no one says 'how boring' when you talk about walking these days."


But, he says, it's the experience of walking that has convinced people that there's something more to the business of putting one foot in front of the other. "It makes you think and feel better. It's not just physical, it makes you feel better in your mind. One of John Howard's staffers told me that the brisk morning walk is when the Prime Minister does most of his thinking. It's also about community - just passing your neighbour's house makes you feel connected."


Walking has never been just a physical activity. The author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit, writes of how at various times in history it has been associated with the environment, with thinking, aesthetic enjoyment, social meaning and political action.


Today, one of the major attractions of walking is its round-the-clock availability and the ability to combine walking with other pleasures. It is the ultimate multi-tasking activity and two of the major side benefits are the social opportunities and the environmental pleasures.


While there has been an increase in formal walking clubs, by far the biggest increase in walking groups is on an informal basis among friends. Those most likely to walk in groups are middle-aged women and retirees.


The environment, too, is being made both more accessible to walkers and more pleasant. All levels of government are funding well-designed walking tracks around harbours, rivers and lakes, and through parks and bush. The walkability of areas is increasingly reflected in their desirability.


As Scruby says, walking around the neighbourhood creates more of a community - it ties the walkers closer to their neighbours and to their landscape and it gives the area an ambience of safety and the pace of a village.

Those suburbs that have shown the fastest price increases of the past decade are so called "milk run" areas, where the trip to buy a litre of milk is doable on foot in less than 10 minutes. The car suburbs that were developed in the 1970s and 1980s, where every trip involves a car and footpaths are often non-existent, are now among the least desirable places to live.


While walking doesn't involve much gear, the boom has filtered through to sports products. Rebel Sports has experienced an increase in the sales of walking shoes from 1.5 per cent of total sales five years ago to 4.5 per cent; cross-training shoes, which are often bought by walkers, have lifted from 15 per cent to 20 per cent. Those shoes that have lost share are specialist sports shoes, such as tennis, basketball, netball and other niche shoes.


These shoe sales reflect the ABS figures - that is, involvement in many organised sports has decreased as people opt for less structured activities. In many ways, walking is the default sport - the moment of exercise you grab when you can't get to the gym, can't get organised into a team or can't fit into a gym's timetable.


The biggest beneficiary of the brisk-paced nation is the travel industry. Every major travel agent now offers a range of walking tours. The roads of Tuscany are thick with jolly walkers, the mountains of Nepal are routinely conquered by retirees and the Australian bush is humming with the chatter of walking groups. And, according to Tourism Victoria's Trend Analysis for 2002-06, these leisure tracks will become more popular.


"The 1990s saw a huge change in lifestyle for many people, with an increasing emphasis placed on physical fitness and healthy living," the report says. "People are not only in search of more natural and spiritual experiences in their leisure time, but are looking for a holistic type of recreation, an overall balance of body, soul and mind. This in turn will fuel a market for indulgence products, outdoor activities, family holidays and short breaks."


The managing director of Trailfinders, Brian Hennessy, says walking tours have "moved from being a specialist product into the mainstream market. With every suburban travel agent offering it, the depth and breadth of walking activities is now huge.


"Once walking tours were only in national parks and they were only for reasonably fit people who could walk four to five hours a day. Now most tours only require you to walk for two to three hours, you don't have to carry your baggage and most of it is through urban areas, walking village to village." With most walking tours now dominated by 40-plus year olds who are well educated and well travelled, the attraction, says Hennessy, is different.


"They don't just want to look out the window and see the sights," he says. "They want to smell and taste a region and they want to do it slowly. One thing a walking tour does is force you to take your holiday at walking pace and for many this is the only way they are forced to slow down."


For decades the ancient villages of Europe have exploited their links to an ambulatory past by hosting walking and cycling tours from around the world but in the past few years Australian tour groups have begun weaving walking tracks through towns or villages in bushland, vineyards and outback areas.


A local walking tour group, Auswalk, was among the earliest Australian groups to mimic the sort of village-to-village walking tours that have made Europe the Mecca for ambling holidays. The director of Auswalk, Monica Coleman, says it's not just Australians but overseas visitors who are looking for walking sojourns through iconic Australian landscapes.


"We've just been to a travel show," she says, "and the main response we had was people saying, 'I knew you could do this in Europe but I didn't know you could do it in Australia'. The second sort of response was, 'Ooh, that looks healthy, I should do that'."