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Cairngorms volunteers helping to improve Scotland’s public health

9th March 2011

A Walking to Health project in the Cairngorms National Park is reaping tangible benefits in terms of improving the physical and mental health of those taking part, according to a new report commissioned by the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust (COAT).

Scotland has an unenviable record in public health, topping the league in the developed world for cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. Factors cited for this include poor diet, alcohol, smoking, and lack of exercise.

The Cairngorms Walking To Health project aims to increase exercise for those who would most benefit from increasing their physical activity. The health walks usually happen weekly and are designed to be short and safe with benefits for everyone but especially those with heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, those suffering from depression or people who want to lose weight.

The evaluation into the Cairngorms Walking to Health scheme shows that there are enormous social and psychological benefits in bringing together people on a weekly basis, many of whom may have become isolated through their health condition.

The walks are led by volunteers within the communities throughout the Cairngorms National Park and surrounding area, and they are recruited, trained and supported by COAT’s Health Walks Co-ordinators. There are currently 40 volunteers leading 23 weekly walks, and during the last 18 months participants have clocked up an amazing 8,000 miles.

The Volunteer walk leaders were thanked today for their valuable time and commitment to the Walking to Health project at a special event at the Duke of Gordon Hotel in Kingussie this morning (Wednesday 9 March).

Special guest at the event was local mountaineer, author and broadcaster Cameron McNeish who stressed the importance and value of volunteers in helping people to access the outdoors with confidence with a view to improving their health and wellbeing.

He said: “For more years than I care to remember I’ve known the marvellous feeling of wellbeing that comes from walking in the countryside. My walks have invariably been in the mountains of Scotland and elsewhere but I’m also aware that others get their ‘fix’ from low level walks and rambles. But for many people, particularly those who suffer from physical or mental illness, the thought of going for walk is too much to contemplate. They may lack confidence, they might be afraid of getting lost, or they might simply not feel up to it.

“That’s where the Cairngorms Walking to Health Project has done such a fantastic job and the project wouldn’t have been a success without its army of volunteers who have given up their time to plan, encourage and lead the walks that have become such an important part of so many lives. Today we want to celebrate those volunteers and thank them for all their time, effort and commitment.”

Dougie Baird, Manager at COAT explained: “I think that anyone who reads the report or speaks to the participants will be both frightened and inspired. Frightened because this is not about other people it is about all of us! Most of us at some point in our lives will need this type of scheme and I suspect all of us will have friends or family whose lives would be improved health walking.

“We should be inspired because of the real benefits gained through the work and effort of people within communities of the National Park who care enough to make the difference by volunteering. The report shows that it costs just £150.00 per walker per year, and this incredible value can only be achieved because of the free time our volunteer leaders gladly give every week. I hope the initiative provides inspiration for other communities throughout Scotland, because really that is what National Parks are for.”

The Walking to Health project was initially trialled in Deeside and Donside in 2009 and was then developed to encompass the entire Cairngorms National Park. It is managed by COAT with support from the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Paths for All, NHS Grampian and the Scottish Government and European funded LEADER 2007-2013 Programme, which is administered locally by the Cairngorms Local Action Group.

CNPA Board Member, Bob Kinnaird commented: “The National Park Authority is keen to see as many people as possible enjoying the wonderful countryside that we have here on our doorstep regardless of age or ability. This is why I am so supportive of the work being done by the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust and the Walking To Health project, allowing people to get out and about with confidence.”

The evaluation of the Cairngorms Walking to Health project was carried out by Lucy Johnston. Research is backed up by a briefing from the Scottish Agricultural College’s (SAC) Rural Policy Centre which makes a series of recommendations about how learning from the scheme could help shape national health improvement policies.

Dr Jane Atterton of SAC Rural Policy Centre commented: “This is a great example of a local-level, cross-sectoral approach to delivering a range of health, social, community and inter-generational benefits. One of our key messages to policy makers is that they should explore how projects like this could be integrated more fully into the health system such as direct referrals from GPs and making information on health walks readily available in GP surgeries. We would also suggest long term investment in schemes like this rather than short-term spend to ensure there is long-lasting success.”

Debbie Greene of Scottish Natural Heritage added: “We are delighted to be supporting this project and helping more people get active amidst our wonderful landscapes and nature in the Cairngorms National Park.”