Updated Dec 2016
They’re everywhere: outdoors on city streets, rural roads, nature trails and garden paths; indoors at recreation centres and sports complexes – they’re even at the mall! Adults of all ages are getting together in large and small groups to chat, laugh, share and support, but primarily to walk.
Walking has long been considered an ideal form of physical exercise. It is easy, accessible, requires no special skills or equipment, poses little risk of injury, and can be done virtually anywhere. Moreover it has been shown to be effective in contributing to overall weight loss, lowering BMI (body mass index) and body fat percentage, and decreasing blood pressure (1).
It’s no surprise then that walking clubs and groups have such an immense following. Walking in groups – as opposed to walking alone – offers several advantages: motivation and support from other group members, opportunities to meet people and socialize, and greater security (another example of safety in numbers). Walking in groups is particularly popular among populations that are most physically inactive (2, 3).These may include retirees and other older adults whose current lifestyles no longer offer opportunities for regular daily exercise.
The social benefits alone may be worth joining a walking group, not to mention the motivation to increase your physical activity (4). But do walking groups make any difference to your health? A recent high quality systematic review summarized the results of 42 studies, involving 1843 participants to measure whether taking part in walking groups improves physical health and mental health (5).
What the research tells us
The verdict: Walking groups are worth it! People in the groups were more likely to show improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, body fat, fitness and walking speed among other benefits. Depression was also lower among walkers compared to people who didn’t participate.
The majority of walkers were older adults (average age was 58) with existing health issues, such as arthritis, dementia, depression and Parkinson’s disease. The authors do recommend more research to measure the benefits of walking groups for healthy adults, but if you – like many older adults – are living with at least one chronic health condition, it is very helpful to know that walking groups can benefit you. Plus, it is a simple and enjoyable thing to do! These studies found that most people completed the entire program and there were no notable side effects.
With the widespread popularity of walking clubs and groups it shouldn’t be difficult to find one in your community that suits your schedule and goals. Alternatively, you can start your own! Previous research shows that group walking programs are equally effective whether they are delivered by professionals or lay people (4), so starting a group could be as simple as asking a friend or neighbour to be your walking partner. Don’t be surprised if before long there are more like-minded people ready to lace up, step out and join you on the path toward better fitness and health.