UK researchers looked at 42 studies to see if participating in a walking group did more than just fulfil recommended physical activity guidelines.
Sarah Hanson, researcher with the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, wrote in an email to Reuters:
“Walking groups are increasingly popular but until now we have not known if there are wider health benefits from walking groups, apart from increasing physical activity.”
Hanson said the findings provide clinicians with evidence of an effective option to recommend to those patients who would benefit from increasing moderate physical activity.
“We would love to see walking groups more widely recommended by physicians, health trainers and nurses,” said Hanson.
The Evidence Is Clear. Walking Is Good For Your Health
In the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Hanson and her co-author note that outdoor walking groups are all the rage in the UK. They cite the example of Walking for Health, a program created 15 years ago by an Oxford general practitioner that is now the country’s largest walking network, with 70,000 walkers, 15,000 volunteer walk leaders and 3,000 walks offered every week.
For their study, the researchers reviewed all the research they could find on outdoor walking groups for adults, including only studies that tracked physical and mental health changes in the participants.
Data on more than 1,800 walkers in 14 countries was included in the new analysis. The studies mostly examined walking as a potential therapy for an existing condition, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease and others, although healthy people were also included in some studies.
The researchers found that, on average, participants who joined walking groups experienced meaningful improvements in lung power, overall physical functioning and general fitness, in addition to the changes in blood pressure, body mass index and other important risk factor measures.
The participants also tended to be less depressed after joining the walking groups, although there was no apparent effect on other mental health conditions.
And other significant risk factors, such as waist circumference, fasting blood glucose and “good” cholesterol, also remained unchanged.
Hanson said it’s important for people to realise that physical activity doesn’t have to be limited to participation in sports, adding that something like walking in a group can become a good habit.
The British Heart Foundation website offers tips on preparing for group walking. The American Heart Association website also offers resources for finding or starting organised walking groups.
Hanson is currently doing research on the appeal of the social aspect of walking in groups.
“There are a lot of lonely, isolated people who really benefit from this aspect of the group. For others, though, a group walk represents an opportunity to be led on a walk with people around and have quiet head clearing time, which is equally important too.”
Stay In Motion And Stay Healthy
Dr. Gunther Neumayr, whose research has found similar benefits from hiking, also addressed Reuters Health in an email saying:
“Humans were selected for motion and not for inactivity – inactivity makes us ill.”
Neumayr, a physician in Lienz, Austria, who was not involved in the UK study, said, “Evidence is growing that inactivity has become the most important single cardiovascular risk factor.”
“Walking and hiking are the original forms of motion and should be more recommended by public health campaigns to face this epidemic of inactivity,” Neumayr said.
We can conclude that walking groups are effective and safe with good adherence and wide-ranging health benefits. They could be a promising intervention as an adjunct to other healthcare or as a proactive health-promoting activity.