Outdoor walking groups: as good as the treadmill?

Last month our cousin the Mental Elf brought you the low down in relation to woodland walks and depression, and here we look at the broader picture of walking groups and health benefits.

Despite evidence and government campaigns such as Change4life to promote physically active lifestyles, few are active enough to be of benefit to general health. In England, for example, 29% of adults do less than 30 min of moderate physical activity per week and about 8% do not even walk continuously for 5 min over 4 weeks.

So, how much exercise is enough? Not everyone wants to be or has access to be a gym bunny. Walking at a pace of 3-5 miles per hour (5-8 kilometres per hour) expends sufficient energy to be classified as moderate intensity and as such is an easy and accessible way of meeting physical activity recommendations.

Not everyone can be a gym bunny

Not everyone can be a gym bunny. A fine excuse for a gratuitous cute baby rabbit in shoe picture 🙂


Hanson & Jones completed a systematic review and meta-analysis in relation to this, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this year.

They gained info from seven electronic databases, clinical trial registers, grey literature and reference lists up to November 2013.

The eligibility criteria included adults and group walking outdoors with outcomes directly attributable to the walking intervention.

The review followed Cochrane guidelines.


42 studies were identified involving 1,843 participants.

The reviewers found statistically significant reductions in mean difference for:

  • Systolic blood pressure: -3.72 mm Hg (-5.28 to -2.17)
  • Diastolic blood pressure: -3.14 mm Hg (-4.15 to -2.13)
  • Resting heart rate: -2.88 bpm (-4.13 to -1.64)
  • Body fat: -1.31%(-2.10 to -0.52)
  • Body mass index: -0.71 kg/m2 (-1.19 to -0.23)
  • Total cholesterol: -0.11 mmol/L (-0.22 to -0.01)
Walking outdoors - a good source of moderate activity

Walking outdoors – a good source of moderate activity.

They also found statistically significant mean increases in:

  • VO2max of 2.66 mL/kg/min (1.67 to 3.65)
  • the SF-36 (physical functioning) score 6.02 (0.51 to 11.53)
  • a 6 min timed walk of 79.6 m (53.37 to 105.84).

A standardised mean difference showed a reduction in depression scores with an effect size of -0.67 (-0.97 to -0.38).

The evidence was less clear for other outcomes such as waist circumference, fasting glucose, SF-36 (mental health) and serum lipids such as high density lipids.

There were no notable adverse side effects reported in any of the studies.


From the evidence available, outdoor walking groups appear to have lots of health benefits including reducing blood pressure, body fat, total cholesterol and also the risk of depression.

Participants also seem to engage with them –  with high levels of adherence and virtually no adverse effects!

Fairy Control to halt tiny doors in Somerset Woods

Fairy Control to halt tiny doors in Somerset Woods

Strengths and limitations

Cheaper than the gym but an accessible source of moderate activity – what more could you want? Well, there are some limitations in that, as may expected given the topic, the studies used were of varying populations and often small and some included studies were non-randomised. There was a preponderance of women in the study groups (76%) and only English language publications were used. Insert increasingly standard phrase – “more research is required to fully establish the exact benefits of Outdoor Walking groups”, but it is looking quite good so far.

An unexpected bonus of participating in an outdoor walking group, particularly if you are in the Somerset area, is that you could have a true Elf experience and leave a note for one of our Woodland Fairies, but please don’t carve anymore Fairy doors, as there seem to be concerns about overcrowding!


Hanson S, Jones A. Is there evidence that walking groups have heath benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094157.