I recently, and with some anxiety, entered the ESRC writing competition. The rules were simple: write 800 words for a lay audience about your research within the general theme of ‘Better Lives’. Today I learned I did not make the shortlist. I’m sharing because I am now 15 months into my PhD and possibly for the first time in my life, I am really comfortable with failures. I’m even more comfortable with feedback, so let me know what you think!
ESRC ‘Better Lives’ Entry
Is walking the new ‘welfare’?
Everyone in my research world starts from an iconic red London bus in the fifties. That was when Jerry Morris showed us that London bus conductors had less heart disease than London bus drivers and all because they were more physically active. There were lots of active jobs back then. Our way of living gave us most of the physical activity we needed: carrying our shopping, washing our clothes, walking and cycling to work and school, playing outside with our friends.
Today looks different for those of us that have work. Our car waits for us at the door of our home. We drop our children at the gate of their school and park as close as we can to the door of our office. If we’ve managed to join the growing army of home-workers, we hang out on-line from our kitchen table. From there, there’s no need to move at all, except for a cuppa and a biscuit. For those who have no work, the sofa, the TV and kitchen window can often be our world.
It’s not just heart disease that concerns us now, it’s the many ways a lack of physical activity affects our lives: cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis. For most of us though, we don’t ponder so much on when and what we might die of. We dwell more on how we feel tired so much of the time and how exhaustion grows from our enduring fatigue. Exhaustion that can spill over into duvet days, sick leave and sadly, for too many, long-term mental health issues.
I grew up in a coal mining village in central Scotland. My dad was an apprentice electrician in the mines, as were my both my grandads. It was undoubtedly hard work and at times dangerous. Lung disease was rife and minor injuries were a daily occurrence. To me though it wasn’t just ‘The Pit’, it was an iconic building that I knew as ‘The Welfare’. I went there with other excited children at Christmas. We passed parcels, ate cake and met Santa in big hall which served as canteen and social centre for most of the people I knew. Outside there was a bowling green, and in the summer the quiet chat of women in white cardigans, grey skirts and flat shoes intrigued me.
I’m no romantic about the mines though, after all I’m a social researcher and I watched my grandad shake and wheeze his way though the last two decades of his life. But, credit to the mining companies, they knew that workers and their families needed to eat, rest and play if they were to turn up productively at work. It generated an active community in every sense of the word, albeit an unequal one.
My mum still lives there, in the coal board house she was born in. She watches the young ones head off in cars to big towns, out of town businesses and science parks. The bus comes rarely. No one walks, there is nothing to walk to. The Welfare is long gone and the community activity, physical and social, seems to have gone with it.
Like all social provision ‘The Welfare’ may not have worked in the same way for everyone, but its presence offered a resource that people could react to in ways that meant something for them. Home to domino clubs, athletic clubs, knitting bees and silver wedding celebrations. Could a walking group challenge offer anything like that in the warehouses and offices of today? How could it do that? Who would it work for? What would it take? These are questions I’m trying to answer and people who walk at work are helping me.
They tell me that going for a walk is a chance to disengage from work, especially work that’s mentally straining. Even a brief, five-minute walk lets them clear their head and helps them to concentrate again. With a longer a walk, some can even solve problems by having space and time to think. Walking alone, brings refuge and calmness, walking with others brings company and conversation.
Even those who don’t experience mentally straining work say that a short walk builds their energy levels. The added energy supports them to be even more absorbed in and committed to their work, helping them to achieve more. For some, they even say they are more creative and social as a result of a brief walk, especially a brief walk alongside a canal, through a park or in a forest.
There’s nothing that will work for everyone, but anything we try is likely to work for someone. My research looks deeply at why walking at work gives some of us a better life.