Walking off the Christmas excess can be the first steps to a healthy lifestyle

IN a couple of days time, if you're anything like me, your waistline will have expanded and your shirt will be a little bit tighter.

Which is fair enough. After all if you can't over-indulge over the festive period, when can you?

But again, if you're like me, you will probably wake up the day after Boxing Day feeling lethargic and craving a healthy salad. I'm as big a fan of wine, cheese and chocolates as the next person but there comes a point when the mere sight of a wafer-thin mint is enough to send you over the edge. The problem is what can you do about it? The idea of going to the gym, assuming it's even open, is about as appealing as having an all over body wax, while no one in their right mind is going to try and play football or tennis in these wintry conditions.

Well, the answer could actually be easier, and less daunting, than you might think. Walking isn't perhaps the first thing that springs to mind when you're looking for ways to get fitter, but it is actually one of the best forms of exercise there is. For instance, an 11 stone person walking at a brisk pace of three-and-a-half miles an hour can burn more than 400 calories in 90 minutes.

Many people assume they need to go to the gym for a proper work-out, but given that the average membership fee for a health and fitness club is more than 400 a year it's not exactly cheap. Besides, how often do you actually go? The great thing about walking is it costs nothing, it can fit in with your busy daily schedule, and it saves you money on petrol.

Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses and it's something people of all ages can do. But despite being good for your heart and lungs and an effective way of losing weight, it's estimated that Britons do 20 per cent less walking than they did in the 1980s.

Des de Moor, a senior everyday walking officer with The Ramblers, believes that walking suffers from a bit of an image problem. "It's a hangover from the 80s when physical activity was all about jogging," he says. "People are becoming more aware of the need to be active and walking is the obvious choice because it's free, you don't need to train and you don't have to pay a membership fee. But I think it's also seen as a bit unglamorous and because it's free people tend to think it can't be worth doing, yet they will buy an exercise bike and pay to belong to a gym."

About 70 per cent of people in the UK don't do enough exercise and while there are signs this figure has stabilised we are way behind many of our Continental neighbours. "In this country we do lag behind the rest of Europe. If you look at Scandinavia, Germany and even France they do considerably more physical exercise than we do."

Our increasingly sedentary lives have led to major public health issues like obesity and rising levels of diabetes, but doctors say that regular walking can help to combat these conditions as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, some forms of cancer and other ailments like osteoporosis and arthritis.

Not only that, but scientists believe that walking can also improve our mental health. A US report, published in October, showed that it may protect the brain against shrinking and preserve memory in the elderly. Neurologists who monitored 300 volunteers over a period of 13 years found that scans of those who walked nine miles a week had larger brains than those that walked less.

Regular walking can also help to tackle depression whether it's

stomping around your local park, or going for a hike in the

countryside. Stephen Fry, who suffers from a form of bipolar, has said his five-mile walks each morning have helped his mental health, while a recent study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that people who spent more time exercising are likely to be in a better position to stave off the threat of depression.

Why, then, don't we spend more time out and about? Some people simply don't like exercise. But making it part of your daily routine, like walking rather than driving to the local shops, or getting off the bus at an earlier stop, can make a difference. Taking a walk at lunchtime can help keep you fit, too, as half an hour's walk after a meal cuts the amount of fat stored in the body.

There is also a belief that you have to walk very quickly to burn off any calories, but it's the distance covered that matters most, not the time. "To build up heart and lung circulation it needs to be a brisk walk so that you're breathing a little harder and your heart is beating a little faster, but not so much that you're unable to talk," explains de Moor.

"Walking in the outdoors triggers the production of endorphins, nature's natural stress reliever, that helps our mental state. There's also research that links mental well-being with being out in green spaces, so we know it has a positive effect."

The benefits of walking might seem obvious but there is a serious side to all this. "For a lot of families it's a chance to spend quality time together and you find that people are more likely to open up when they're out walking than they are when they're in a room at home."

The word "walking" often conjures images of anorak-clad individuals trekking in the hills, but de Moor says it attracts all kinds of different people. "Walking is a great solitary activity, if you need to gather your thoughts then going for a walk often helps. But at the same time it's very sociable. You don't have to concentrate because your body knows what it's doing which allows you to talk to the person you're out with."

It's also fun and takes you to places you can't reach in vehicles. "It helps you explore your local environment and you can discover things on foot you would never stumble on if you were travelling by car or bus. We often get people telling us that they've lived somewhere for 10 years and never realised that such and such a park existed. It's the same when you go somewhere new, you don't feel like you've got to know it until you've walked around and got your bearings."

Bob Dicker, the National Trust's property manager for Yorkshire, says anyone can enjoy a walk in the country. "There really is something for everyone. There's conservation interest and local history and you can see all kinds of mammals and birds. A little bit of knowledge can help but you don't have to be an expert."

Mark Reid, Yorkshire based author of The Inn Way guidebooks and an outdoor expert, says walking is a great way of reconnecting with nature. "Yorkshire is the biggest county in the country, it has three national parks with the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors and a good chunk of the Peak District, as well as the Heritage Coast and we have great access to some truly stunning and diverse landscapes.

"The dales have the hills and, like the moors, they can feel wild and remote where there's no sign of man's hand for as far as the eye can see. But an hour later you can be sat drinking a pint by a fire in a pub, and that's the beauty of it," he says.

"I've just come back from a walk in the Cleveland Hills. There was still about a foot of snow and it was minus seven, or eight, degrees and the snow had crystalised on the hills. I'd never seen that before but it's only when you go out somewhere that you get to see things like that. Even if you're out and the skies are leaden and it's pouring with rain you will still see something special, because every walk brings its own memories."

But you don't have to go to the back of beyond. "You don't have to drive for an hour to go to the Dales, you can go for a walk in Roundhay Park, or alongside a canal, any green space in an urban area is fine, you just need to use a bit of common sense and wrap up warm. But it's a fantastic time to go out walking right now because the landscape is just beautiful."

So once the chocolates have gone and you've finished the leftover turkey sandwiches, why don't you don your boots and walking gear and head out somewhere – it will do you the world of good.

As the Greek physician Hippocrates once said: "Walking is man's best medicine."

Good reasons to go walking

Walking about 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) can give you a healthy heart and reduce your body fat – most people walk an average of 4,500 steps a day.

According to the NHS, regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers.

Walking increases your muscle tone, boosts metabolism, eases stress, raises energy levels and improves sleep.

More than a third, 37 per cent, of deaths caused by heart disease are related to inactivity.

A person that weighs 9st 6lb (60kg) burns 75 calories in 30 minutes by strolling at 2mph.

Four walks in Yorkshire with the Ramblers to tempt you from the sofa on Boxing Day

Holiday Outings

Whether it's a gentle stroll through picturesque Fountains Abbey, or a more adventurous hike around Malham, Yorkshire has an embarrassment of natural riches.

And when it comes to outdoor walks there is something for everyone, from the iconic dales and moors, to the gently rolling hills of the Wolds and the spectacular heritage coastline that stretches from Flamborough Head up to Saltburn by the Sea.

Grassington is an excellent starting point for those wishing for a more gentle introduction to Upper Wharfedale, while Otley Chevin is a pleasant walk and on a clear day you can see as far as Armscliffe Crag and the White Horse at Kilburn.

The Cleveland Way National Trail, which run in a horseshoe shape from Helmsley to Filey Brigg, takes in some stunning scenery, including Sutton Bank, described by James Herriot as "the finest view in England".

The Ramblers' annual 10-day Festival of Winter Walks gets underway on Boxing Day and here are four organised walks in Yorkshire to tempt you off the sofa:

1) Boxing Day Dawdle near Richmond.

Date: Sunday, December 26

Start time: 10:30am

Distance: 9 miles

Description: Stretch those legs and walk off the Christmas mince pies with a Boxing Day walk near Richmond. Start at Ravensworth and walk to Hartforth, Jagger Lane, Jockey Cap and Kirby Hill taking in views of Ravensworth Castle.

2) Denby Dale Pie Trail

Date: Sunday, December 26

Start time: 9:15am

Distance: 5 miles

Description: Barnsley 20s & 30s Walking Group is part of Barnsley & Penistone Ramblers and generally aimed at those between 20 and 40. Starting promptly at The George, Upper Denby, this pleasant walk follows the village trail finishing in time for a hot toddy with the Rockwood Harriers hunt before they set off.

3) New Year's Day walk around Whiston

Date: Saturday, January 1

Start time: 10:30am

Distance: 8 miles

Description: Start the year with a refreshing walk around Whiston, taking in the Ulley Reservoir, Treeton Dyke, and Catcliffe on this circular stroll.

4) East Yorkshire Watton walk

Date: Monday, January 3

Start time: 12:55pm

Distance: 6 miles

Description: Starting off at Watton layby and heading towards Watton Priory and Hutton Cranswick before returning back to the village.

For full walks details visit www.ramblers.org.uk/winterwalks or call 0207 339 8500.