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Walking in groups helps people stick with their exercise goals, study finds

Courtesy of Blue Zones
People who had engaged in group walking were more likely to be exercising at the end of the studies than their peers who hadn’t joined a group.

Joining a walking group helps people stick with their exercise goals, according to a review paper published recently in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care.

The paper also reported some evidence that group walking may improve people’s quality of life.

“At a time when we are being encouraged to meet physical activity guidelines, a large proportion of the public fail to do so,” said Catherine Meads, the study’s lead author and a professor of health, social care and education at Great Britain’s Anglia Ruskin University, in a released statement. “Our review found that people may be more likely to exercise if they have social support.”

“Walking in groups tended to increase life satisfaction and may also improve social connectedness,” she added.

Study details

For the review, Meads and her co-author, Josephine Exley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, analyzed data from 18 previous studies (including 14 randomized controlled trials) that compared the effectiveness of walking in groups with walking alone or not at all. (The instructions given the “not at all” group varied from study to study, but sometimes included education on the benefits of walking but no direct access to a walking group.)

The studies involved healthy adults, and most — but not all — of the participants were over the age of 65. People were asked to walk in the groups for between five and 90 minutes on one to seven days a week, and the studies lasted for between two and 12 months. Outcomes were measured at the end of the studies, although three studies followed up with the participants three months to 10 years later.

After reviewing all the data from those studies, Meads and Exley concluded that people who had engaged in group walking were more likely to be exercising at the end of the studies than their peers who hadn’t joined a group. 

Unfortunately, however, the studies included too few “solo” walkers to draw any definitive conclusions about whether that activity was as successful as group walking at helping people stick with their exercise program.

Seven of the studies also assessed the effect of group walking on quality of life. In five of the studies, people who walked in groups rated their quality of life higher at the end of the study than did their non-group-walking peers. In the other two studies, no difference was found. 

‘Safe and inexpensive’

“Walking in groups is a safe and inexpensive intervention that can be delivered easily and successfully in the community,” said Meads.

Current public health guidelines recommend that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, each week. 

Those levels are associated with substantial health benefits, the guidelines point out, including a lower risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancer.

Yet, only a relatively small proportion of people meet even the minimum amount of exercise recommended in the guidelines — less than 50 percent of American adults, according to background information in the study. (Only 20 percent meet the guidelines for both aerobic exercise, such as walking, biking and running, and muscle-strengthening activity).

Many people start an exercise program with good intentions, but soon lose interest or motivation. Some research suggests that 50 percent of people who start an exercise program drop out within six months.

“There is good evidence that exercise adherence is enhanced through the use of social support,” write Meads and Exley.

Their review seems to support that evidence. So, if you’re struggling with putting your walking shoes on regularly, you might want to try joining — or forming — a walking group. 

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the review on the Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care’s website. The full study is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. For information on how to start a walking group — or to possibly find an existing one in your area — go to the American Heart Association website.

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