Patients at a GPs’ surgery are enjoying the health benefits of walking in the New Forest National Park.

Doctors at Fordingbridge Surgery have been referring patients to a local healthy walk group to help them alleviate stress, recover from illness, improve physical fitness or overcome mental health problems.

Described as a natural health service, the Fordingbridge Walking for Health group has expanded from two walks a month to two walks every week. A similar group has also been set up in Ringwood.

The walking groups were set up as partnership project by the New Forest National Park Authority, Community First New Forest, Fordingbridge Surgery and Ringwood, Fordingbridge Footpath Society and New Forest District Council, with sessions now led by local volunteers.

Although the walking group include referral patients, they are open to anyone who feels they can benefit from guided strolls in the Forest.

Tessie Jordan is a regular on the Fordingbridge walks. The 57-year-old lives in London but spends half the week with her mum in Fordingbridge.

She said: ‘Over the last year I’ve had lots of things go on in my life that have been pretty stressful and I’ve been trying to deal with them all at once and juggle lots of things. Any form of exercise is good for dealing with stress. But I particularly enjoy walking and because it’s on at a set time it makes me do it. Being out in nature makes a big difference. It’s a preventative thing and it makes me feel better.’

Dr Toby Wallis, a GP Partner at Fordingbridge Surgery, said: ‘Exercise is one of the most powerful interventions a person can do for their health, and in fact exercise is listed as an evidence-based prevention or treatment in 39 UK national guidelines to improve the quality of patient care.

‘It is known to reduce the risk and improve the outcomes in cancer, heart related problems, high blood pressure, respiratory disorders and arthritis as well as being good for one’s mental wellbeing.

‘We know that more people die prematurely through physical inactivity than from smoking, diabetes and obesity combined. The healthy walks programme is a great way for people to exercise in this wonderful local environment of the New Forest.

‘We are grateful to the National Park Authority for setting up this fantastic scheme and hope that it will benefit our patients’ health and reduce their need to visit the doctor as a result.’

National Park Ranger Craig Daters, who helped set up the walking group in Fordingbridge, said: ‘Green spaces provide a break from our busy lives. They’re a great place to get some fresh air, reduce stress, exercise or relax – and what better than the natural health service offered by the New Forest Healthy Walks scheme?

We’re delighted that the walking groups have become so popular and are helping to make a difference in people’s lives.’

The walking groups are also supported by Fordingbridge Information Centre, Fordingbridge Library, Fordingbridge Parish Council, NHS Community Health Team, Avonway Community Centre, Ringwood and Fordingbridge News, and Fordingbridge Focus magazine.