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The Belfast men who have walked their way back to good health!

Ahead of National Walk to Work Day this Friday, three former teachers and good friends from Belfast tell Leona O’Neill how pounding the pavements, parks and country roads has been vital to their recovery from serious illness and injury

On the move: the trio enjoying a walk
On the move: the trio enjoying a walk

Walking is a great way to improve and maintain your overall health. Just 30 minutes of walking every day can increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, boost muscle power and endurance, stave off diseases and help recovery from illness.

This Friday we will mark National Walk to Work Day, a day geared towards promoting walking and its benefits to our health.

Three Belfast men who know exactly how walking can change lives are former teachers and friends, Colm MacGiolla Fhiondain, Patrick Dorrian and Noel McGuigan. The trio, who have each faced different health issues in recent years and each have found solace and indeed healing in walking, are encouraging others to embrace the concept of walking to improve their health.

Colm MacGiolla Fhiondain (72) is a divorced father-of-four who lives in Belfast. He fell seriously ill with an aneurysm this time last year. He almost died after suffering an aorta split, but has since walked his way back to full health.

"I got up one morning and tightened my belt and got a pain in my stomach," he says. "It got worse over the next day and spread to my back. And at about 5am the next morning I got a distinct feeling that something was seriously wrong and that if I didn't get down to the hospital quick it might be too late. I drove myself down and almost immediately after seeing the nurse I was put on a stretcher, put through a scanner and wheeled straight to theatre.

"All I wanted was something that would make this pain go away. I didn't know how bad it was. It was what they call a 'Triple A' in the medical world, that is an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I had an aneurysm on the aorta and when I tightened my belt it pressed on that, which caused the aorta to split. So when they opened me up they found that they had two operations to do - to fix the aorta and then because the aneurysm had swelled to five centimetres they had to remove that also and put in piping.

"It was a life saving operation. My daughter got word that I was in hospital and what was wrong and when she looked it up there was a 5% survival chance. After that I developed a blood clot in my leg and almost lost that too. I had to have a pipe fitted in my shoulder which takes the blood supply to my leg. I really am very lucky to be here."

Colm, who was a keen runner in his youth and well into his 40s, embarked on the long road to recovery, helped along by walking.

"I had been walking at weekends up until I took ill," he says.

"After my aorta operation I also had some problems with my leg and had to have an operation there, which has caused me to have a bit of a limp and it took me a around a month to get back to walking after spending a month in hospital.

"When I left the hospital the doctors said to me that the best thing I could do was to walk, because it gets the blood supply around and helps with all sorts of healing. They really emphasised that it was an essential part of the healing process.

"I walk myself during the week and I walk with some friends of mine at the weekend. I would maybe walk around 20 miles a week.

"Walking makes me feel that I'm still vibrant because I'm still able to do it, because I know friends who aren't able to do it or aren't here anymore. I'm doubly pleased I'm able to walk after coming back from a life-threatening condition. It makes me feel good.

"After I was ill my hair stopped growing for a couple of months with all the internal damage that was done.

"I thought I was going to end up bald, but after I started walking it came back with a vengeance.

"I can't help but think that a lot of my healing was to do with the blood being pumped around, rejuvenating things in my body.

Double benefit: Colm MacGiolla Fhiondain
Double benefit: Colm MacGiolla Fhiondain

"I love walking with friends because it is very social. It's not power walking.

"It's just an hour of walking and scurrilous stories, laughing and chatter. It's good socially as well as physically."

Colm often goes walking with his former teaching colleague Patrick Dorrian, a 67-year-old father-of-three from north Belfast. He says a shock Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and the threat of blindness and limb amputations made him embrace walking seriously.

He now walks some 60 miles per week.

"My wife Frances took ill with vascular dementia in 2017 and during that time I hadn't been feeling well," he says. "I was tired and I had started losing weight. I think I lost around three stone. I was so thirsty, even through the night, and I had another symptom, a sensation of burning feet. I went to the doctor and they did tests.

"When they tested my blood in a test called HBA1C, mine was 89 and the register for being diabetic was 48. I was put on diabetic medication.

Long distance: Patrick Dorrian walks around 60 miles per week and last week recorded 123,000 steps
Long distance: Patrick Dorrian walks around 60 miles per week and last week recorded 123,000 steps

"But through walking and exercise I've got that down to about 42, which is just pre-diabetic and my medication has been scaled back down.

"My friends and I had been walking for years, on and off. After I was diagnosed I found myself getting back into the walking. My daughter bought me a FitBit and I have it linked into my phone. Last week, I had 123,000 steps on it. I found that the more I walked, the better I felt. Initially I was getting my bloods checked every month, now it's once a year. You never eradicate diabetes, it is always there in the background. If I couldn't walk anymore or control my diet, I would have the diabetes back. Walking is one of the things I do to stave off diabetes.

"I would walk down to the nursing home where my wife lives and do a lot of other general walking about, then make time for bigger walks. I would walk around 60 miles a week. I used to be a distance runner years ago and after you'd been out running you'd feel great. I get the same feeling after a walk, with the endorphins that are released. It cheers you up a bit.

"I walk with my friends for an hour and a half, it's just talking and putting the world to rights."

Patrick says that walking changed his life and helps him prevent serious conditions such as retinopathy and neuropathy, which could lead to blindness and loss of limbs.

"Two of the things that they warn you about with diabetes is retinopathy and neuropathy," he says. "Retinopathy is where the nerves of the retina get totally destroyed and you go blind. Neuropathy is when the nerves stop functioning and you get gangrene and start losing toes and maybe a leg. So that is an incentive to keep walking and try to keep it at bay for as long as possible.

No stopping: Noel McGuigan continued to walk during his recovery from surgery
No stopping: Noel McGuigan continued to walk during his recovery from surgery

"I would definitely recommend walking to anyone with health issues. You don't need to be doing competitions or fast walking, just walking and getting out in the fresh air. It makes you feel energised. It is a social event as well as being exercise. It lifts your mind and gives you a chance to think and get things in perspective."

Fellow former teacher and walker Noel McGuigan (73), from south Belfast, has three grown-up children with wife Jane. He has loved walking for years and continued his passion after both his knees replaced five years ago.

"I have been walking for 40 years, well before I had any problems with my knees," he says.

"Around five years ago I was playing football on the street with my grandchildren when I fell and hurt my knee against the kerbstone. When it didn't heal after around a month I went and had it seen to. I had an X-ray and saw a specialist and they said I had to have surgery due to wear and tear.

"During my period of recovery my other knee began to give me problems and I had to have surgery on that too. So I had them both replaced within a six-month period.

"In my recovery I just kept walking. I always feel good when I'm out walking. I enjoy the exercise in itself. I enjoy being out in the fresh air, whether it is raining or not. There is an aesthetic pleasure to be achieved when walking on your own, but when walking with companions it is so much the better and when you're off the main roads, it's all the better again. You can get easily distracted by nature, by views of the countryside and by reflection on both the countryside and the conversation you have with your companions."

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