Morning mist has deteriorated to drizzle and Kate Humble is perched on a high stool in the window seat of a bustling café in Notting Hill, inspecting her black Apple watch.
‘I’ve done 10,183 steps today,’ announces the former BBC Two Springwatch presenter, clearly satisfied – and understandably so. It’s not yet 10am and Kate, 50, has already surpassed the golden number of strides recommended by the World Health Organisation for optimum health.
Earlier she jogged five miles through the surrounding streets to Hyde Park and yesterday totted up ten miles on foot to and from a meeting in east London. Tomorrow, back in rural Wales where she lives with her TV producer husband Ludo Graham, 57, Kate will rise at 6am for a one-hour countryside ramble before breakfast – a daily commitment that began 11 years ago when she left London and relocated to a four-acre smallholding in the Wye Valley. There, with a new dog to exercise (there are now three: Badger, Bella and Teg), she discovered a deep passion for the great outdoors.
‘I’ve found that a morning walk really works for me. I need that very basic, primeval act of putting one foot in front of the other,’ explains Kate. ‘You think, “Would I feel better if I had half an hour extra in bed?” The answer is “No, you wouldn’t”. You’d feel better for getting out.’
The health benefits of walking
According to the NHS, regular walking reduces the risk of chronic illnesses such as asthma, stroke, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, and last year doctors and hospitals in the UK were encouraged by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare to issue patients with ‘green prescriptions’ – walks in woodlands and local parks, not only to promote physical fitness but because of the therapeutic benefits of green spaces. It’s why more and more therapists are combining walking and talking to combat mental-health problems. Kate, who also believes in the power of walking to enhance creativity and concentration, understands the gains first-hand.
In her twenties, then a freelance TV presenter and working long, chaotic hours, Kate suffered a year-long bout of insomnia and, surviving on a measly few hours of sleep a night, recalls becoming ‘short-tempered and emotional’. Anxiety is known to be a cause of insomnia, which is thought to affect 31% of the British population and, although Kate later resolved her sleep woes with the help of reflexology, she remains prone to anxiety. Walking is her tonic.
‘I’m not dealing with clinical anxiety, I’m dealing with everyday anxieties that can be miserable,’ explains Kate, sipping tea from a thermal mug. ‘It is very easy, when you’re surrounded by four walls, for anxiety to get completely out of proportion. It takes on a very physical form and feels like something you have to fight against. I’ve realised that by getting out of the four walls you’re saying “I’m going to do something for me”, and that sense of taking control can feel like a tiny triumph.
‘Suddenly that creature gets ever smaller. It may not happen in one walk, but you go out again and a solution starts to crystallise and you realise what’s making you anxious.’
How walking helped with bereavement
One month before our interview, Kate’s 82-year-old father Nick passed away following a short illness and after initially turning into ‘the most productive, practical person’, registering the death and making funeral arrangements – what she labels her ‘coping mechanism’ – reality dawned. The countryside has since been Kate’s crutch during an intensely emotional period of grief.
‘There have been moments, sometimes in company but often on my own and often when I’m walking, when I double over.’ Kate stops and her face crumples as tears fill her brown eyes. She quickly recovers her composure.
‘Being on my own and being in the countryside, it doesn’t matter that I’m wailing and it has really helped,’ she continues. ‘In that time, I’m not lonely. I have this lovely luxury of solitude and time just to remember. The lovely thing about walking is I can spend that time with my dad.’
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Walking and mental heatlh
With all medical research celebrating the benefits of walking – one study revealed that a 50-minute ramble decreases anxiety and depression, another associated prolonged sedentary behaviour with nearly 70,000 deaths in the UK – Kate hopes her passion for walking will encourage others to lace up their boots.
She recently published Thinking on My Feet, a book documenting a year of her favourite walks, including a nine-day, 150-mile hike through the Wye Valley, plus inspiring stories of others, including Ursula Martin who, over 18 months, trekked 3,700 miles across Wales after battling ovarian cancer. Walking gave her identity and purpose.
Kate wholeheartedly believes walking should not be a chore but something that generates feelings of reward. ‘It’s your time, your little moment to yourself. It is the equivalent of a slice of cake. It is a treat,’ she says.
Kate Humble's walking tips
So if someone is keen to begin walking but unsure about where to begin, where is the best place to start? ‘It’s about taking that first step, putting on a pair of shoes you feel comfortable in. It’s not thinking, “Have I got my lipstick on?”, it’s about setting out and seeing it as a tiny little personal adventure,’ replies Kate.
‘If I start my day being outside regardless of the weather, with solitude, my brain can quietly wake up and become aware of the world. Walking helps me deal with the simple act of waking up, facing the day and getting my head in order. I make a mental to-do list but in a very unpressurised way. This is mindful walking. It allows body, soul and mind to gently come to consciousness.’
Kate’s walking wellness rulebook is simple: no technology and therefore no distractions. ‘Don’t look at your emails before you go out, don’t look at your phone, don’t look at anything. Just go out,’ she says.
Connect with the environment
Kate says: ‘I love the very tangible, visceral connection it gives me to what’s happening in the world. “Are the leaves any further out?” or “Is there more birdsong in the morning? Have the snowdrops come out?” Lovely natural moments that make you feel part of the environment.’
Crucially, says Kate, those living in urban environments can reap the same rewards. ‘We’re very lucky in this country because we have great green spaces in all our cities and tow paths along canals, for example. There are always places that you can get to for half an hour.’
Look after yourself
Kate, who also runs four or five times a week, occasionally exercises with a personal trainer and began Pilates last year, shakes her head when asked if she felt any trepidation about turning 50 last December.
‘The lovely thing about getting older is, rather than worrying about what you haven’t got or don’t look like, you start appreciating what you have got and do look like,’ she smiles.
‘I have a body that is far from perfect – I don’t have perfect boobs or a six-pack – but it works.
‘Ultimately, we’ve got to be responsible for ourselves. If you are lucky enough to have good health, then it’s your responsibility to absolutely make the most of that and to treasure it and to nurture it because life can change’ – and here she clicks her fingers – ‘like that.’
Outside, the drizzle has turned to rain and after departing the cosy café, Kate Humble strides, umbrella-free, onto the puddled pavements to walk a mile to her next meeting. Another 2,000 steps before lunchtime. It’s a beautiful day.
Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another by Kate Humble is available at a discount at the Saga Bookshop.
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