Was one of your New Year's resolutions to improve your health and fitness? If so, take note; a new study suggests regular group walking may reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and depression, among other potentially life-threatening conditions.

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Participants who joined walking groups experienced significant reductions in blood pressure, body fat, body mass index (BMI), resting heart rate and total cholesterol, a new study found.

These findings - published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a journal of The BMJ - come from researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK.

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, set by the US Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity - such as brisk walking - each week.

A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, found that almost half of adults in the US do not meet these recommendations.

The research team, led by Sarah Hanson and Prof. Andy Jones - both of the Norwich Medical School at UEA - say their findings indicate that clinicians, health professionals and local authorities should recommend walking groups in their local areas as a means of encouraging physical activity among the general public.

The health benefits of walking are well documented. In September 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting hourly 5-minute walks may reverse arterial damage caused by sitting down for long periods, while a more recent study claimed that just 20 minutes of brisk walking a day could reduce the risk of premature death.

For this study, Hanson, Prof. Jones and their team set out to determine the health benefits associated with group walking. "Although walking groups are increasingly popular, we have not known if there are wider health benefits from walking groups, apart from increasing physical activity," Hanson told MNT.

Regular group walking 'may be a catalyst for adopting other healthy behaviors'

The researchers analyzed 42 studies involving data of 1,843 participants from over 14 countries, some of whom had obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fibromyalgia (chronic widespread pain) or Parkinson's disease.

The team assessed the health of participants at study baseline. Some participants joined walking groups - which typically involved regular short walks under 1 hour in outside environments - and the researchers assessed the effects of regular group walking on their health.

The results revealed that participants who joined walking groups experienced significant reductions in blood pressure, body fat, body mass index (BMI), resting heart rate and total cholesterol - all factors that may reduce the risk of a number of conditions - including stroke and heart disease. Walkers also demonstrated improved lung power and general fitness, as well as lower depression levels.

The team notes that around 75% of participants adhered to regular group walking, suggesting that people are more likely to stick to this form of physical activity.

Hanson adds:

"Our research shows that joining a walking group is one of the best and easiest ways to boost overall health. The benefits are wide ranging, and they go above and beyond making people more physically active.

People who walk in groups also tend to have a more positive attitude toward physical activity, a shared experience of wellness and say they feel less lonely and isolated. Taking regular walks can also be a catalyst for adopting other healthy behaviors."

Jackie Hayhoe, program manager for a UK group walking scheme - Walking for Health - says the study findings add to the increasing evidence that group walking is highly beneficial for health.

"Walking really works," she adds. "Every day we see the positive impact this simple activity has on the thousands of people who regularly take part in Walking for Health group walks. We're delighted to see further evidence to support what we see on the ground - that walking with others adds to the many health and well-being benefits regular walkers see."

Hanson told MNT that the next step from this research is to determine the best way to encourage involvement in walking groups among the general public.

"Having found that group walks have health benefits - and they have previously been found to be cost effective and cheap to implement - our next work is to find out the best way to set up walking groups amongst those areas/people who would benefit the most by increasing their moderate activity," she added.

In September last year, a study from the University of Michigan suggested that group nature walks may improve mental health and well-being.