Despite all the government campaigns, targets and media stories about the importance of regular exercise, a high proportion of the populations of Western countries still leads a very sedentary lifestyle. Cost and availability of facilities such as gyms and sports centres shouldn’t be a factor, given the benefit that can be obtained from simply walking briskly or running. If motivation is the issue, can exercising with other people help? New research suggests that risk of strokes, coronary heart disease, depression and other life-threatening conditions can be reduced through regular outdoor walking in groups. The findings reveal that people who regularly walk in groups have lower blood pressure, resting heart rate and total cholesterol.
While effects of the physical activity would come about if done individually as well as in groups, the study examines group walking, because despite activity guidelines and widespread publicity about the value of exercise, many people still fail to exercise regularly. SportEngland figures show, for example, that in England 29% of adults do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. The review by Hanson and Jones, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, says that the impact of interventions in primary care to reduce inactivity appears limited; simple advice to be more active has only moderate yet short-term effects. It is suggested that one way to promote and sustain walking behaviours at the population level may be through the provision of outdoor walking groups. An example of such is ‘Walking for Health’, a scheme originally set up by an Oxford General Practitioner in 2000, and which now offers around 3000 short walks led by volunteer leaders each week.
The review and meta-analysis by Hanson and Jones reviewed 42 studies that looked at:
- 1,843 participants in 14 countries
- A total of 74,000 hours of group walking
- Included people with obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease, as well as healthy participants
- People who joined walking groups registered statistically significant falls in average blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat, weight, and total cholesterol.
- Walkers also experienced improvements in lung power, overall physical functioning, and general fitness, and they were less depressed than before they started walking regularly.
- Evidence was less clear-cut for reductions in other risk factors for ill health, such as waist circumference, fasting blood glucose and blood fats.
- Three-quarters of all participants stuck with the group, and there were few side effects, apart from a handful of falls on roots or wet ground, and minor injuries such as calf strain.
Sarah Hanson, from the University of East Anglia, said: "Our research shows that joining a walking group is one of the best and easiest ways to boost overall health. The benefits are wide ranging — and they go above and beyond making people more physically active. What's more, people find it relatively easy to stick with this type of exercise regime.
"The merits of walking — including lowering the recurrence of some cancers — are well known, but these findings show that the dynamics and social cohesion of walking in groups may produce additional advantages.
"People who walk in groups also tend to have a more positive attitude toward physical activity, a shared experience of wellness, and say they feel less lonely and isolated. Taking regular walks can also be a catalyst for adopting other healthy behaviours.
"The research evidence suggests people enjoy attending walking groups and appear less likely to drop out than many other forms of activity."
Jackie Hayhoe, programme manager for Walking for Health, said: "Walking really works. Every day we see the positive impact this simple activity has on the thousands of people who regularly take part in Walking for Health group walks. We're delighted to see further evidence to support what we see on the ground — that walking with others adds to the many health and well-being benefits regular walkers see.
"As the evidence mounts, we'd like to see more local authorities, clinicians and public health professionals supporting and recommending walking groups in their local areas."
"Walking is safe and walking groups could provide a valuable line of treatment, with a potential for both physiological and psychological health benefits," she added.
The research follows another widely reported study, published on 14 January in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which estimated that doing exercise equivalent to just a 20 minute brisk walk each day could reduce the risk of premature death by 16-30%. The impact was greatest amongst normal weight individuals, but even those with higher BMI saw a benefit.
The study of over 334,000 European men and women found that twice as many deaths may be attributable to lack of physical activity compared with the number of deaths attributable to obesity, but that just a modest increase in physical activity could have significant health benefits.
A study published last year in the journal Ecopsychology found that group nature walks are linked with "significantly" lower depression, less stress and better mental health and well-being, both before and after controlling for covariates. The team, led by Dr. Sara Warber, evaluated nearly 2,000 participants from the Walking for Health Program.
Among the findings was that people from the study who had recently encountered stressful life events – such as a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment – experienced a mood boost after outdoor group walks.
The BBC reports today (22 January) that two new articles published in the BMJ say that current exercise guidelines (at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more) are unrealistic and that doctors should sometimes advise small increases in activity instead.
S. Hanson, A. Jones. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2015; DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2014-094157
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Melissa R. Marselle, Katherine N. Irvine, and Sara L. Warber. Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study, Ecopsychology, September 2014, 6(3): 134-147, doi:10.1089/eco.2014.0027
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