Lifestyle and exercise

Walking ‘could save 37,000 lives a year’ report claims

The benefits of walking have been reported across the UK media. The BBC reports that “walking more 'would save thousands' of lives in the UK”.

These stories have been prompted by the "Walking Works” report (PDF, 3.4MB). It provides an overview of current evidence on physical inactivity, and makes the case for encouraging more people to take up walking as a form of physical activity.

It lays out that a large proportion of the population is not meeting physical activity guidelines and that if more people did so, this could potentially save 37,000 lives a year in England. It also discusses the specific benefits of walking – such as the fact that it is free, requires no special equipment, and can be done by most people.

Recent guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has also laid out similar potential benefits of walking and cycling, and made recommendations for organisations and institutions with responsibility for or influence in local communities aimed at helping these groups in encouraging and supporting people to walk and cycle.

The NICE guidance recommends that money, time and effort is put into encouraging and supporting people to walk and cycle, with a co-ordinated approach from the authorities.

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the walking charity, Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support and was supported by Public Health England an agency of the Department of Health.

Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support also work in partnership to enable “Walking for Health”, a programme that includes 600 schemes to offer short, free, local health walks in communities across England. The schemes are run by a variety of organisations, ranging from local councils and NHS trusts to volunteer groups.

What evidence is the report based on?

The report is described as “an extensive overview of the mounting research into the life threatening consequences of inactivity”. It aims to do this to “provide… health professionals with an overview of the evidence for promoting and supporting walking interventions, such as Walking for Health, as a way to increase physical activity in the population”.

The methods of the overview are not described, but it discusses evidence from a range of different sources on the impact of physical inactivity on health and costs, the effects of physical activity in general, and of walking in particular. The extensive list of sources includes robust sources of evidence, such as systematic reviews and guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), and national surveys.

What points does the report make about physical activity?

The main points the report makes about physical activity are:

  • physical inactivity can shorten your life
  • physical inactivity is expensive – with estimates suggesting it could be costing the economy £10 billion a year in healthcare costs, premature deaths and absences due to sickness
  • physical activity saves lives – the report estimates that if everyone in England were sufficiently active, nearly 37,000 deaths a year could be prevented
  • physical activity is good for our minds
  • walking is the answer to getting people more active
  • walking is an effective form of exercise
  • walking is cost effective
  • Walking for Health is a proven way to get people walking, happy and healthy

Why does the report say that walking is the answer?

Walking is a form of moderate physical activity that can contribute to the recommended amounts of physical activity. The report notes that walking is the most accessible and popular form of physical activity. They also say that it has the greatest potential to grow, especially among people who are disproportionately affected by physical inactivity and poor health – such as those on low incomes and from certain black and minority ethnic communities.

Some of the reported barriers to people being more active include a lack of time, money, poor health and physical limitations. Walking addresses these “roadblocks to exercise”, because:

  • walking is free, requires no special equipment, training, or gym or club memberships
  • walking is a moderate, low-impact activity unlikely to cause injury
  • you can walk almost anywhere and at any time
  • you can start slowly and easily and build up gradually, ideal if you are very unfit, have a long-term condition or are on a rehabilitation programme. For some people it is a ‘gateway’ to more vigorous activities
  • you can wear everyday clothing, reducing embarrassment for unfit or overweight people
  • it is a multipurpose activity that facilitates social interaction or getting from A to B
  • only 4% of people either need help when walking outside the home or are unable to walk on their own at all

The report also states that well-designed walking initiatives are excellent value for money.

Walking is also a sustainable form of transport which could help to reduce congestion. Based on an earlier review assessing the case for making investment in walking, the report also suggests that walking “would bring economic benefits to both urban and rural areas, can help increase social interaction, reduce crime and fear of crime, and help develop social capital”.

The report also provides figures on the Walking for Health programme, which is reported to offer around 3,400 walks a week to 70,000 regular walkers, led by around 10,000 volunteers.

What did NICE say about the benefits of walking?

NICE recently produced public health guidance on walking and cycling. NICE guidance is based on the best available evidence.

NICE’s guidance suggested similar potential benefits from walking to those described in the “Walking Works” report. It stated that increasing how much someone walks or cycles may increase their overall level of physical activity, leading to associated health benefits, including:

  • reduced the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes
  • keeping the musculoskeletal system healthy
  • promoting mental wellbeing

NICE also suggested that an increase in walking or cycling can also help to:

  • reduce car travel, leading to reductions in air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and congestion
  • reduce road danger and noise
  • increase the number of people of all ages who are out on the streets, making public spaces seem more welcoming and providing opportunities for social interaction
  • provide an opportunity for everyone, including people with an impairment, to participate in and enjoy the outdoor environment

What does the report conclude?

The report concludes that their review “demonstrates that there is clear and robust evidence for the need to promote walking as a means to help people get and stay active. There is a physical inactivity epidemic and walking is a major part of the solution.”

To put it more concisely: what’s not to like about walking?

NHS Attribution