Julia Bradbury: My walking cure costs nothing

It’s helped her stay healthy and upbeat through difficult times. And, whether it’s a country hike or city stroll, the best thing about walking, says TV presenter Julia Bradbury, is you simply set one foot in front of the other.

I can still remember the lonely shepherd’s hut. Sitting lopsided on top of a volcanic mound in the Icelandic highlands on one of the most famous walks in the world, the 60km Landmannalaugar trail. There wasn’t anywhere else to do the pregnancy test to find out if I was expecting a longed-for second baby. The answer was no. I stared at the test stick, heart-sore that my fertility treatment hadn’t worked.

Then I stepped back into the outside world and for the next three days I hiked harder than I had ever done before – up mountains, over frozen streams, across lunar landscapes, past steaming hillsides and bubbling mud pools that smelled of rotten egg.

By the end I felt physically strong and mentally focused. Reaching the dramatic finishing point of what I guessed would be the walk of my life, at the top of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, I knew I was ready to embark on challenging IVF treatment. But I didn’t know I had years of it ahead of me and, of course, I didn’t know that eventually it would give me give me twin daughters.

Julia Bradbury
Julia in Devon last summer with five-year-old twin daughters Zena and Xanthe and son Zeph, nine. Image: David Venni/Chilli Media

This is one of the many times I have used walking not just to keep myself physically healthy but to build emotional resilience. It eased the self-doubt which took me to see a therapist in my mid-30s and calmed the pressures of filming Countryfile, too. When I had surgery for the endometriosis I feared would leave me infertile, my recovery in mind and body was through walking.

These days I am a happy mother of three with a busy career. Like all of us, I have worried about how to stay healthy and happy during the pandemic but I already know the answer – it’s walking.

It lowers your risk of heart problems, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and helps keep your blood pressure under control. You will sleep better and have improved digestion. In terms of mental health, walking boosts your mood and your memory, and it reconnects you to the natural world where you gain a sense of perspective. Your problems really do seem smaller, more solvable, against the grandeur of a mountain peak or a sea view, in the cool of an ancient woodland or sunning yourself against the warmth of a riverbank. I know this is not the everyday reality for many, but Britain is a nation of parks, commons and green spaces. Despite being brought up in a Rutland village and best known for wearing hiking boots and a rustling cagoule, I live in London. My most frequent walks are in the city’s many parks. I walk for my job on camera and in the far corners of the countryside for fun, but those park walks are my therapy.

My first walks were with my dad Michael when I was seven years old. He’d take me to the Peak District, often to Kinder Scout, the birthplace of popular walking. He even taught me to tickle trout (a technique for catching trout in your hands by ‘tickling’ the gills) in a river close to Buxton in the Derbyshire Dales. That sort of childhood wasn’t unusual – the 70s was a decade when 40 per cent of children played in natural areas*. Today 40 per cent of children never play outdoors**. Because of Covid, we now have a generation with an even greater challenge – losing a year at school and the freedom to be with their grandparents and friends – but we can help them recover by building a love of walking and nature into their childhood, as my dad did for me.

It doesn’t matter if you are six or 60, you can start. You don’t need expensive kit, an instructor, a particular talent or lots of time. You just need to put one foot in front of the other. After those early hikes with my dad, I never stopped walking for fun or for fitness, but I was in my mid-30s and a well-known face on Watchdog when I first understood that I needed to walk for the sake of my mental health, too. My career was flourishing but I was having an uncomfortable episode with one of my TV bosses, I’d been diagnosed with endometriosis and like many women, I was asking myself, ‘What about my personal life – will I ever have children?’ Everything around me seemed heavy.

I remember a real turning point in the Lake District. It was wintry and the mountains were capped in snow when my sister Gina and I set off to hike up Blencathra, near Keswick. It’s a pretty serious scramble and the snow added to the challenge (it’s 868 metres high). The adrenaline, sense of achievement and the view from the summit cleared my head and helped signpost a way out of my troubles. Hiking, being in nature, is not written on any prescription but it should be.

After I’d had a laparoscopy for my endometriosis, it was a garden that helped me heal. I went home to my parents’ house in Rutland and meditated beneath the trees whose apples I’d picked and put into pies since I was small. Then, when I was well enough, I began walking to the reservoir at the bottom of the village, eventually working my way up to managing a loop of Rutland Water. It was just a few miles but enough to build my strength and quieten my emotions.

Then there was the decision I made on that hike in Iceland to try for an IVF baby. The brutality of what I was doing to my body with fertility drugs, having four rounds over four years, was offset by walking. Even when I was busy filming Countryfile I would make it a priority, getting up an hour earlier and lacing on my boots before breakfast.

So I am a true outdoor evangelist. I’m thrilled that one of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is that everyone is resolving to take more exercise and acknowledging the importance of nature. Gyms and swimming pools are closed, team sports are banned, so walking and cycling are pretty much the only things left to do.

However, sitting on a cycle’s razor-blade seat, getting chafed thighs all the way to Land’s End and back, is not my cuppa, so I’ll stick to walking, thanks. Here’s why. To live happy, healthy lives we need a few basic things: movement, walking, nature, sleep and food. I don’t need to tell you how important a healthy, balanced diet is and I’m not a doctor – so I won’t. As for sleep, Professor Matthew Walker, author of the book Why We Sleep, can explain how people who slumber for seven hours or more are less likely to catch a cold than those who get only five hours a night. So that leaves us with movement, walking and nature, which are my specialist subjects. (Though I will say that walking will help you make better food choices and sleep longer.)

Moving is vital for physical strength and mental health – human beings were not built to spend all day at a desk. Even seemingly small movements get your heart beating, your lungs pumping and your blood flowing. When you increase blood flow to vital organs you improve energy levels, circulation and even digestion – your intestines are a muscle. Movement also gives your lymphatic system a nudge, helping your body detoxify and keeping the immune system healthy. You’re even helping to nourish your skin cells so you’ll look better, too.

What you can’t see is that movement triggers changes to your body chemistry. More blood and oxygen heading to the brain promotes new connections between brain cells and can stave off the decline of brain tissue that comes with age. Even more incredible, the hippocampus region of the brain, which is crucial for memory, increases.

Yes, walking keeps your brain fresh. In terms of mental health, the way we move our bodies can alter how we think; it’s a different experience to running or cycling through a landscape. You can try changing the pace of your thoughts, energising or soothing yourself, by walking faster or slower. It’s that simple, and it’s why some of history’s greatest philosophers, such as Henry David Thoreau and Friedrich Nietzsche, have done their best thinking while walking.

All of these benefits can be enjoyed on an urban hike, too. Virginia Woolf, for example, was a huge fan of creative, energetic city walks, and that’s important for the 80 per cent of us who live in towns and cities today. We need to look to her as well as William Wordsworth and his beloved Lake District for our inspiration.

I understand that getting going can be hard. But listen to the story of a lady called Louise whom I met while filming my new TV series Cornwall and Devon Walks, currently on ITV. Louise was in hospital being treated for fibromyalgia (a long-term condition causing pain all over the body, resulting in extreme fatigue, difficulty sleeping, problems with mental processing and IBS) and arthritis. She’d been prescribed heavy-duty painkillers and her weight had ballooned to 25 stone. By her own admission she didn’t leave her armchair very often; even going to the loo was a trial.

Louise made the decision to start walking with a wheeled frame around her hospital ward. Today she has lost eight and a half stone and is now hiking across Dartmoor, feeling less pain and more joy than she has for a long time. That’s the mental and physical power of walking.

I’m grateful to my dad for teaching me about it at such an early age. He is 80 now, has had prostate cancer and can’t hike as he once did. A few years ago I was filming in Derbyshire, on Kinder Scout, and he came to join me for the first few steps. It was a bittersweet walk. When I reached the end I climbed to the top of the Noe Stool, a famous rocky outcrop and sat in a Buddha pose looking down at the valley below and in that moment I realised I’d never be up there with him again. But I can look forward to the day I take my son and my daughters to make the climb with me.

I can’t claim like Louise that walking has saved my life but it often saves my sanity. It’s kept me physically fit through all sorts of personal ordeals, self-indulgent moments and brain flares. Whatever state you are in, wherever you are, you’ll find it a constant and faithful companion, with the ability to humble, inspire and right you.

Julia’s five favourite walks:

Julia Bradbury walks
Images: Alamy/Getty. Illustration: Sara Mulvanny at Agency Rush.

Cornwall and Devon Walks With Julia Bradbury is on ITV on Wednesdays at 8pm. The Greek Islands With Julia Bradbury is available on DVD.

As told to Sarah Oliver.

*Source: Natural England. **Source: National Trust.