How an app inspired heart patients to get walking

Lunar walking

Duncan Galbraith is trying to walk to Mars. “We’ve been to the moon, and now we want to go that little bit further,” he says. 

To the uninitiated, Duncan’s ambitions might seem confusing – but he can explain. The walking he does week in, week out is real, but the lunar adventure isn’t.

Duncan’s ‘moonwalk’ is the result of an idea he had six-and-a-half years ago. He was looking for ways to inspire members of his weekly cardiac rehab class – where he works as a BACPR-qualified instructor, teaching exercises to suit people with cardiovascular disease  – to stay active after they left the gym. 

“I suggested that they go for a walk,” says Duncan, 60, who lives in Greenock in Scotland. “I think they thought I meant around the park, but I said my idea was to walk around the world.”

I think they thought around the park, but I said my idea was to walk around the world.

Walking around the world

Using Google Maps, Duncan planned a route that circled the globe and totalled 30,600 miles. Each member took walks in his or her spare time, deducting the distance they notched up on their pedometers from the overall figure every week. Any treadmill, cycling or rowing during their time with Duncan also counted towards their goal.

The group soon planned other ‘virtual walks’, aiming to cover a target distance in a set amount of time. “We’ve walked across Europe and Canada, and along Route 66 in America,” says Duncan. “We’ve covered over 100 countries worldwide without setting foot in any of them.”

This approach proved so popular that in 2010, Duncan applied for and received a Help a Heart Grant from the BHF to buy more pedometers. Then, in October 2013, the group launched the World Walking website and app, allowing others to walk with them. “We have more than 1,800 users and 225 groups signed up,” says Duncan, who runs the cardiac rehab class during the week and World Walking in his spare time.

“The lunar trek we did saw 100 groups from all over the country taking part, and together we clocked up 500 million miles – to the moon and back.”

Personal experience of cardiac rehabilitation

Duncan retrained as a cardiac rehab instructor in his 50s, but he also has personal experience of what his group members are going through. Soon after his career change, he developed his own heart problems. 

It came in an odd sequence,” he says. “I had a desk job for 30 years as the director of primary care for the local health board. I wanted a change, so I became a personal trainer, did the cardiac rehab training and then started some classes around that."

Duncan then developed atrial fibrillation about three years ago. He has now been fitted with a pacemaker to control the condition. “I still get an irregular heartbeat from time to time, but nowhere near the amount it was, and that’s been a huge boost for me.” He adds: “I’m not on medication now either, and the experience has helped me to understand the journey of others.”

With his training as an instructor, Duncan was able to help his own condition. “I applied the same principles to myself,” he says. 

He now hopes to create a version of the website for primary school children. Last year, he helped the local NHS board in Glasgow plan a route for its annual pedometer challenge based on the Commonwealth Games.

For Duncan, extolling the benefits of walking is more than personal – it’s his (lunar) mission in life.

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