Organized walking groups improve the walkers’ blood pressure, heart rate, total cholesterol, mood and other aspects of health with little downside, according to a new analysis of recent research.

UK researchers looked at a total of 42 studies done since the late 1980s to see if participating in a walking group did more than just fulfill recommended physical activity guidelines.

“Walking groups are increasingly popular but until now we have not known if there are wider health benefits from walking groups, apart from increasing physical activity,” study co-author Sarah Hanson told Reuters Health in an email.

Hanson, a researcher with the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia said the findings provide clinicians with evidence of an effective option to recommend to those patients who would benefit from increasing moderate physical activity.

“We would love to see walking groups more widely recommended by physicians, health trainers and nurses,” she said.

In the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Hanson and her coauthor note that outdoor walking groups are all the rage in the UK. They cite the example of Walking for Health, a program created 15 years ago by an Oxford general practitioner that is now the country’s largest walking network, with 70,000 walkers, 15,000 volunteer walk leaders and 3,000 walks offered every week.

For their study, the researchers reviewed all the research they could find on outdoor walking groups for adults, including only studies that tracked physical and mental health changes in the participants.

Data on more than 1,800 walkers in 14 countries was included in the new analysis. The studies mostly examined walking as a potential therapy for an existing condition, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease and others, although healthy people were also included in some studies.

The researchers found that, on average, participants who joined walking groups experienced meaningful improvements in lung power, overall physical functioning and general fitness, in addition to the changes in blood pressure, body mass index and other important risk factor measures.

The participants also tended to be less depressed after joining the walking groups, although there was no apparent effect on other mental health conditions.

And other significant risk factors, such as waist circumference, fasting blood glucose and “good” cholesterol, also remained unchanged.

About three of every four participants stayed with their walking groups throughout the studies and the only side effects reported were a few falls and one calf injury.

Hanson said it’s important for people to realize that physical activity doesn’t have to be limited to participation in sports, adding that something like walking in a group can become a good habit.

“Outdoor walking groups need no longer be viewed as just a leisure activity, they are enjoyable and have wide ranging health benefits – psychological as well as physical,” she said.

The British Heart Foundation website offers tips on preparing for group walking (bit.ly/1AwEBTq). The American Heart Association website also offers resources for finding or starting organized walking groups (bit.ly/1cEAib2).

Hanson noted that she is currently doing research on the appeal of the social aspect of walking in groups.

“There are a lot of lonely, isolated people who really benefit from this aspect of the group,” she said. “For others, though, a group walk represents an opportunity to be led on a walk with people around (the presence of others) and have quiet head clearing time, which is equally important too.”

Dr. Gunther Neumayr, whose research has found similar benefits from hiking, told Reuters Health in an email, "Humans were selected for motion and not for inactivity - inactivity makes us ill.”

Neumayr, a physician in Lienz, Austria, who was not involved in the UK study, said, “Evidence is growing that inactivity has become the most important single cardiovascular risk factor.”

Walking is a low-to-moderate intensity exercise that can be performed by everyone, Neumayr said.

“Walking and hiking are the original forms of motion and should be more recommended by public health campaigns to face this epidemic of inactivity,” he said.