What Are the Health Benefits of Walking?

© Tim Gardner

Whether it's a half hour stroll in the park or a full day on the fells, we all know that getting out for a walk is good for us - but how good? And how can we encourage colleagues, friends and family to walk too? Physical activity scientist Dr Ash Routen reviews the health benefits of walking, and what we can all do to encourage others to step outside the front door. For a longer, healthier and perhaps even happier life, the basic take home message is: sit less, walk more... and tell others about it.

"Move along please" the bus conductor would chime as he made his way up the stairs for the umpteenth time that morning. It would have been a working life spent in perpetual motion. It was this occupational requirement of movement that sparked Professor Jerry Morris' interest in examining the rates of coronary heart disease between bus drivers and conductors of the London Transport Executive.

Morris and colleagues demonstrated that men in physically active jobs (conductors) had lower rates of coronary heart disease than men in physically inactive jobs (drivers) – and with the publication of these data in the medical journal the Lancet in 1953, the field of physical activity and health was born (although ancient Greek and Roman scholars had long noted the benefits of movement for sound mind and body).

Looking to Myndd Mawr  © Tim Gardner
Looking to Myndd Mawr
© Tim Gardner, Jan 2014

"1hr20mins of hillwalking per week may reduce risk of early death by 10%"

Nowadays the health benefits of regular participation in physical activity have been irrefutably demonstrated, such that the World Health Organisation now list physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for early death globally. The healthcare and productivity burden of this was recently estimated to cost 68 billion international dollars per year globally (equivalent to the GDP of Costa Rica!).

Scrolling through social media of late I've been heartened to see walking promoted as a means to prevent a number of chronic lifestyle diseases. I also noted the UKH article highlighting the virtues of Alex Roddie's daily five mile walk. These are excellent examples of advocacy, and in their own small way serve to raise the profile of the importance of getting outside for a regular walk (for the avoidance of doubt, it's safe to ignore this UKH article published, not coincidentally, on April 1st 2016).

I'm quite sure the majority of readers are already well aware of the health benefits of regular countryside and mountain walking. You might have less understanding however on the specifics of these benefits, and whether you have a role to play in encouraging others to step outside the front door.

On the first point we must turn to the highest level of scientific evidence in public health, the systematic review, which assimilates in a methodical fashion the studies conducted on a certain topic (providing they meet given criteria of rigour). When considering the reduction in risk of early death, Kelly and colleagues recently show that walking (around 1 hour and 20 minutes of hillwalking unloaded per week, or 2 hours of brisk walking per week) may reduce risk of early death by approximately 10%, with the largest benefit seen for people who move from doing no walking at all to around 2 hours per week – however more is still better for all of us!

walking health table  © Ash Routen
walking health table
© Ash Routen

Life is of course not all about longevity, we also want to have quality of life, free from disease. The good news is that moderate intensity physical activity, such as a good brisk walk is associated with a reduction of risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, anxiety, depression and so on; and in most cases these benefits are independent of weight loss (yay!). Hence why physical activity and in particular walking is often considered the best buy in public health.

When coupled with the mounting evidence for time spent in natural environments (unless of course you are teetering along Crib Goch in high winds!) being good for mental health and wellbeing, I think we have a compelling argument to shout the case for walking a little louder.

But how can we as individuals encourage others to head out there into our country lanes, hillsides, and fells? Recent advances in behaviour change psychology have focused on three key concepts: capability, opportunity and motivation. I believe that we all have a role to play regarding the provision of opportunity, we can all be advocates. As individuals we all have power of social opportunity, that is we all exert influence over peers, colleagues, friends, partners and family. Perhaps we could ask our partner to go out for a stroll tonight? Or take a colleague out hill walking for the first time next weekend. That isn't always feasible of course, but we can still raise awareness by banging the drum on the power of the humble stroll via social media, in the coffee room at work, or over a pint with friends.

Whilst we must temper the movement to get people out into the hills with an awareness of the environmental impact of increased visitors, the message is simple – sit less, walk more, and tell others about it.

About Ash Routen

Dr Ash Routen is a Research Associate in Physical Activity and Public Health at Loughborough University. He is a long time hillwalker, with a recent interest in cold environment expeditions.

Check out his personal website: www.ashrouten.com

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