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Organised walking groups improve the walkers’ blood pressure, heart rate, total cholesterol, mood and other aspects of health with little downside, according to a new analysis of recent research.
UK researchers looked at a total of 42 studies done since the late 1980s to see if participating in a walking group did more than just fulfil recommended physical activity guidelines.
“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,” study co-author Sarah Hanson said.
Hanson, a researcher with the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia 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,” she said.
In the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Hanson and her coauthor 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. 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.
“Outdoor walking groups need no longer be viewed as just a leisure activity, they are enjoyable and have wide ranging health benefits – psychological as well as physical,” she said.
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