Nina Barough CBE is the Founder and Chief Executive of breast cancer charity Walk the Walk, which organises the iconic MoonWalk fundraising events. Over the past 27 years, the charity has raised more than £140 million, with the funds being invested into Walk the Walk Campaigns as well as supporting organisations like Cancer Support UK, to help improve the lives of people with cancer.
Soon after founding Walk the Walk, Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she went through treatment and recovery, the huge benefits of walking became even more apparent to her.
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my world fell apart– all the beliefs and ideals I’d held for so many years were suddenly challenged and put to the absolute test. In the beginning, I automatically feared the worst, and simply didn’t know how to deal with my diagnosis.
After that initial shock, I gathered my thoughts and realised how much I could do to help myself get through my treatment and recovery. I figured that the fitter and healthier I was, the quicker I was likely to heal. I became totally focused on my health, including diet and exercise and in particular on how walking – the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other – really helped to make a difference to how I felt.
I’d been an avid walker before my diagnosis, but suddenly the benefits of walking came into their own. As I went through my treatment, I found that going out for a walk really helped me to find a comforting rhythm, repeat positive mantras and to mull over what was going on in my head. I found that I often especially enjoyed walking on my own – I would literally just step out of my front door and walk a few yards or a few miles, depending on how I was feeling at that moment. I could walk fast or I could walk slowly and that’s what I really loved, the flexibility. I adapted my walks, depending on how I was feeling on that particular day.
Walking made me feel stronger and fitter, I was doing something very positive to support myself. It was as if walking was giving me back everything which my breast cancer diagnosis had taken away. For everyone – whether they’re totally well, or going through treatment for a serious illness like cancer, on top of the mental health benefits, the physical benefits of walking are endless, too.
Scientists have often talked about walking as being the almost perfect form of exercise. If you’re walking at a pace which is slightly increasing your heart rate, it’s very beneficial for your heart. It’s also a weight-bearing exercise, so you’re looking after your bones. It can help with both pre-menstrual and menopausal symptoms and for men, walking can even help with sex drive.
As a form of exercise, walking has no negatives – other sports might put pressure on certain joints and parts of the body, but with walking, that’s not the case. When I started taking part in challenges, walking was seen as the poor relation to running – but not any more. My own first step to consciously make walking a central part of my recovery led to another step and then thousands more steps. Here I am more than a quarter of a century later and still walking.
The key thing with walking is that you can progress at your own pace – you should never try to walk too fast, or too far, too soon. If you’re in the middle of cancer treatment, understand the limitations you have and walk within them. You must feel comfortable – you want to avoid coming back from your walk, aching, sore and not wanting to go out again. If you’re not walking very far, it simply doesn’t matter – just getting out into the fresh air and walking, even if it’s just for a few minutes, is the most important thing. I’d suggest that you start by going out for a walk maybe three times a week, for a fortnight, I can guarantee that after those two weeks, you’ll be walking a little bit further and a little bit stronger than you were at the beginning.
If you only have a limited amount of time to go out for a walk, as time moves on, try and walk a little further during the same time period. If you don’t have time restrictions, start gradually, then begin increasing either your time or distance (or both). It’s all about balancing the desire to push yourself a little further, while keeping within your realistic capabilities. Particularly when you’re preparing for cancer treatment or going through it, walking is such an accessible form of exercise, which I know from my own experience will really help you, both physically and mentally.
Walking during the winter months can be very invigorating, provided you are wearing the right clothes. Before you go out walking, make sure you’re wearing Gore-Tex or waterproof shoes and clothing. If you feel comfortable, and your body and feet are dry and cosy, it will make you want to go out again. Even on days when the weather isn’t very welcoming, I can guarantee that if you do go out for a walk, you will come back feeling empowered.
Every cancer diagnosis is so different, but I know that for me, looking after my health, diet and lifestyle, and particularly going out for a walk, gave me something incredibly positive to focus on, when everything around me seemed so negative. Walking is magical for me and it can be the same for you.”