Walking and Health
How good for your health is walking? How much should you do? What if you have a health condition or are a wheelchair user? Can apps help?
Would you like to achieve these health benefits?
- A stronger heart
- Stronger bones
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of breast and colon cancer
- Reduced symptoms of depression
- Improved fitness
- Better cognitive function
- Less cognitive decline as you get older
The good news is that walking can provide all these benefits, for the price of a good pair of shoes and some outdoor clothing – which you may already have.
How much walking should I do?
The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. That’s equivalent to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week – and brisk walking is one way of achieving this. This is a good target if you’re short of time.
However, walking has been described as “near perfect exercise” and has been proven to have a range of health benefits. So if you have more time then you could consider a more ambitious target like 10,000 steps (or about 5 miles) a day.
Research from the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that 10,000 steps is “a reasonable target” for healthy adults although evidence on the specific health benefits for people already in good health is currently limited.
The benefits of joining a walking group
Joining a walking group has a number of advantages. There's the social interaction, which also means you are probably more likely to keep walking on a regular basis.
A 2018 review of 42 published studies concluded that outdoor walking groups have, “wide-ranging health beneﬁts. With low levels of attrition, high levels of adherence and virtually no adverse effects”. The benefits included lower blood pressure, lower body fat, lower Body Mass Index (BMI), lower cholesterol and a reduction in depression.
But what if I have a health condition?
Check with your doctor first but, in general, walking/exercise is now seen as beneficial for a range of medical conditions, including cancer.
You may say it is hard to get started or to stay motivated, particularly if you are overweight or have a health condition. If so, there may be help available near you. The Walking for Health programme is free and specifically designed for people who don’t take much exercise. It provides regular short, graded walks over easy terrain with trained walk leaders. There are now hundreds of local schemes across England, attracting over 70,000 regular walkers.
Walking for Health
A 2016 evaluation of the Walking for Health Programme found that taking part in the programme improved general mental health, reduced loneliness and improved social interaction.
Walking for Health advise, ‘The combination of outdoor exercise and social interaction is good for everyone’s health and wellbeing. Activities like health walks are especially beneficial for those with long term health conditions. For example physical activity can help manage some of the debilitating consequences of cancer treatment, and can even help reduce the chance of some cancers coming back.’
If you’re a wheelchair user or caring for a wheelchair user the Walks with Wheelchairs website be a useful starting point.
If you’re feeling more ambitious Walk4Life maps show interesting local walks and the main Ramblers website has a range of walking resources, including paths and routes, parks and countryside and walking events.
But what if I don’t have time?
You may not have time for a four mile hike every day. But you probably have a range of opportunities to walk short distances every day. For example you can:
- Get off the bus a stop or two earlier and walk the rest of the way
- Walk your children to primary school rather than taking the car
- Walk to the local shops instead of driving
- Take the stairs rather than the lift while at work
- Walk up escalators in shopping centres and Tube stations
- Take a ten minute walk during your lunch break (especially if there’s a park or garden near where you work)
- Have a short walk with family or friends after dinner
- Use the interactive urban walk planner Walkit (available as a mobile phone app) to help you find the best walking route between two points in the UK’s major cities.
Does a pedometer or mobile app help?
Pedometers measure how many steps you take during the day. Some research has found the use of one “is associated with significant increases in physical activity and significant decreases in body mass index and blood pressure’’ although whether these changes are durable over the long term isn’t yet known.
A 2014 review of the evidence concluded that pedometers are also effective in increasing physical activity levels for patients with musculoskeletal disorders
If you want to achieve the 10,000 target then the NHS suggests buying a pedometer and gradually building up your daily step count. In addition “an emergent body of evidence suggests that pedometer-determined physical activity is related to a number of cardiovascular health outcomes.”
There are thousands of mobile health apps on the market including wearable technology that is aimed at monitoring your health and collecting relevant data. Over time research is likely to become available on the effectiveness of those focusing specifically on walking.
Walk or Run?
Both have health benefits. Walking has the advantage that you’re less likely to get sweaty (so easier to fit into your daily life), there’s a lower risk of injury and less pressure on your knees, hips and other joints.
- Walking is free and has many health benefits.
- 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is a useful target – more if you can.
- If time is short there are many ways you can fit short walks into your daily life.
- If you have a health condition check with your doctor but you’re likely to find walking is seen as helpful.
- Pedometers and apps can help you check how far you’re walking and some people find this motivating.
Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins, February 2019. Next review due November 2023.