Checking that the coast was clear, Lynda McLeigh took a deep breath and headed slowly up the garden path, clutching her dogs’ leads. Once she was doubly sure no neighbours were in sight, she set out along the road. Each step was hard work, physically and emotionally, as she tried to overcome her fear of being seen. ‘Having the dogs helped – they were my “excuse” to be out walking,’ she says. ‘The last thing I wanted was for people to realise I was exercising to lose weight. I couldn’t bear them looking at me.’

Looking back at those days, Lynda can’t quite believe how far she’s come – both in terms of her mobility and her passion for walking. She’d joined a Slimming World group weighing 15st 8½lbs, and after losing 2st she decided to add Body Magic into her week with some walking, but she knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The lymphoedema in her leg, a condition that causes swelling, had been made worse by her weight and made walking even short distances difficult. ‘At first, I’d be gasping for breath after just a few minutes and my leg would throb with pain,’ says Lynda. ‘My husband, Joe, had to help me put my trainers on because I couldn’t bend down to do it myself.’

But as the weeks went by, it started to get easier and, eventually, I was walking a mile at a time.

As Lynda found, walking is an ideal gateway to becoming more active. ‘It’s how lots of members start their fitness journey,’ says Dr Jacquie Lavin, Slimming World’s head of nutrition and research. ‘Most people can walk a little bit, even if it’s just a few steps, so as an introduction to exercise, it’s not as scary as going to a gym or riding a bike,’ she says. ‘Setting mini goals based on your fitness levels is an easy way to track your progress. It might be to walk to the end of the street, or walking your children to school. Aim to build up to a brisk pace to get the most benefits. You should be able to feel your heart beating a bit faster and your lungs working harder, and still be able to hold a conversation.’ The speed will differ for everyone, depending on their own fitness level, and when it comes to finding the motivation to get started, we’re all different there, too.

A light-bulb moment

Lynda was motivated to lose weight after a routine medical to continue her work as a foster carer. ‘I was weighed in kilos and I had no idea what that meant. Back at home, I got on the scales and was shocked to see I weighed nearly 18st,’ she says. ‘The doctor who’d assessed me hadn’t mentioned my weight, but I’d been having health problems for years, and I knew deep down I’d have to do something about it if I wanted to keep fostering. As well as having lymphoedema, I also had fibromyalgia, which causes pain all over the body, and at that time was on 21 tablets a day to treat it. I’d sit at home eating crisps or a takeaway, comforting myself with food, because I’d convinced myself the tablets were to blame for my weight gain and there was no way to change it.’ 

Even though she didn’t believe she could lose weight, when her daughter Sarah told her about Slimming World, Lynda decided to join online to try it for herself. ‘I didn’t think I could face walking into a group,’ she says.

But, online, I took to Food Optimising and soon lost 2st.

‘Over Christmas I realised that I wanted that extra support through challenging times, so I decided to join Leanne McLaughlin’s group in Downpatrick, County Down, with Sarah. There was a lot of talk about Body Magic, but it took me three months before I dared give it a go.’

Slimming World’s Body Magic programme helps to ease members into leading an active life, and walking regularly can be a key part of that. In fact, walking is an incredibly efficient way to improve heart health, lower blood pressure and strengthen your bones. ‘It also has lots of other, perhaps more surprising, benefits,’ says Dr Jacquie Lavin. ‘Being more active can aid your sleep, boost your mental wellbeing and help improve your self-esteem.’ For many of us, the barriers to getting started with walking aren’t purely physical, so finding ways to overcome emotional blocks can be as important as lacing up those trainers. ‘Some people find it helps to give themselves a reason at the start: taking the dog out like Lynda, or strolling to the local shop for a paper.’

A new sense of freedom

For Lynda, easing herself into walking was working wonders. Within two months she was doing a one-mile circuit with her dogs every morning, and once she realised nobody was paying attention to her, she started to walk without them in the evening, too. She’d also thrown herself into Food Optimising and found meals the family could eat together, from curry and lasagne to roast dinners. As the weight came off, she felt able to walk further, and her fibromyalgia and lymphoedema began to improve. By August 2018, she’d lost 7st 8lbs to reach her target of 10st 3lbs, going from a size 22 to a 10. 

Now she walks for miles every day. ‘I go out in all weathers – rain, hail, snow. I won’t let anything stop me,’ she says.

If it’s dark, I take two torches and have a neon light wrapped around my waist. I don’t care who sees me in my brightly coloured get-up – I love it.

‘Walking out the door with my head held high gives me the most amazing sense of freedom, and my early-morning walks set me up for the day: I can focus on my own needs and clear my mind. My favourite place to walk is along the promenade at Newcastle Beach. For me, Food Optimising and walking are essential parts of maintaining my weight, so I’m not planning to stop doing either of them!’

Far from having to give up the fostering she loves, Lynda’s weight loss and improved fitness have had a profound effect on how she can spend time with her foster children, particularly a nine-year-old girl in her care. ‘She has complex care needs and being fit means I can cope with the everyday challenges that face us. I know that if I’d gained more weight, I wouldn’t have been in a position to continue caring for her, which would have been awful as we adore her. Now we go to the park, take long walks and go swimming together. I’ve got so much energy, and I’ve even joined a Boogie Bounce trampoline class!’

Holidays have changed for Lynda and Joe, too. ‘On our first cruise three years ago, I hobbled about and we could only leave the ship if we joined a coach tour,’ says Lynda. ‘Last year, Joe and I could explore in our own time and really get a feel for each place. My advice to anyone would be to just go for it – go for a walk, wherever you are on your weight loss journey. Seeing what you can achieve, and how quickly you can go further, will motivate you to go further still!’

Finding your stride

Walking is one of the easiest ways to get more active, support your weight loss and improve your fitness. And in the current situation, going for a walk is ideal for taking your once-a-day outdoor exercise. It’s perfect for beginners and, best of all, it’s free. The trick is to get started and then find ways to make it routine. Here are our top tips:

  • Face your emotions: It’s common to worry what others will think at first, and many people find their fears go as soon as they get started. Ask yourself why you’re embarrassed and plan strategies that might help. Perhaps you’d feel happier heading out early in the morning when things are quieter.

  • Take it slowly: You don’t have to walk for hours. A brisk 10-minute daily walk brings lots of health benefits and counts towards the recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise. Think of ways you could fit in 10 minutes today, or if that sounds like too much, start with five. If you have limited mobility, begin with a few steps, such as to the first lamp post along your street and back. Gradually you’ll find you can build up how long and how far you go.

  • Make it a habit: Finding ways to fit walking into your daily life will help it become second nature more quickly. Taking a short stroll first thing in the morning, or each day after dinner, are easy changes that really work.

  • Count your steps: There are loads of step counters and fitness trackers out there, whatever your budget, that can keep tabs on distance, steps – or both! You might find there’s already one on your smartphone. Some trackers even ping graphs and trophies to your phone to help keep you inspired to reach new heights.

  • Get the One You Active 10 app: Free from Public Health England, it tracks steps and active minutes, and sets realistic goals to get you moving even more. It also records when you’ve hit a certain speed and kept it going for 10 minutes – an ‘Active 10’ – and encourages you to build up the number of 10-minute bursts you do.

If you’re planning to start a new exercise programme, we recommend you check with your GP first – especially if you have an existing health condition, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or asthma. If you’re pregnant, check the suitability of the exercise with your midwife.

*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.