Health benefits of walking - Scotland

There is growing evidence to show that lack of physical activity contributes to a number of both physical and mental health conditions, many of which are largely preventable.

Currently around a third of Scots fail to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity.

As walking is free and accessible to most people, it can play an important role in improving health by helping us all to be more active in our daily lives. Walking in the natural environment also brings added benefits to our health and wellbeing.

Our position
As a charity, a governing body of sport and the representative body for walkers in Scotland, we can play an important role in encouraging and supporting more people to be more active through walking in Scotland’s great outdoors, and therefore to enjoy healthier lives.

Walks organised by groups are particularly recognised as being valuable to participants, in giving additional physical and mental health benefits, and our 54 local groups all run varied led walks programmes throughout the year. Through our walk leadership project, funded by Active Scotland, we are supporting our walk leaders to learn walk leadership skills while recognising and building on the leadership experience they already have to ensure everybody has a safe and enjoyable walk.

Our Medal Routes project, which ran from 2011-2016, was particularly aimed at helping inactive people become more active by mapping short, circular routes from a central hub. There are now over 750 routes of 15, 30 and 60 minutes, which can be downloaded from our website.

We are partners in the delivery of the Scottish government’s National Walking Strategy.


Government action
We believe that outdoor recreation plays a key role in encouraging more people to be active in the natural environment and to gain all the benefits this brings. However, this needs sustained funding from national and local government.

This includes retaining budgets to support the work of access staff and ranger services in local authorities and investing in paths, signage and bridges – as well as promotional materials such as maps, websites and leaflets.

Without this infrastructure, people will be less likely to get outdoors, and particularly those who face the highest barriers to participation.

Scotland has some of the worst average life expectancy levels in Western Europe and there is increasing awareness that our inactive lifestyles are making the situation worse.  Evidence is growing that physical inactivity increases our risk of developing over 40 diseases, while regular brisk walking could improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce body fat in sedentary but otherwise healthy individuals.

The four UK Chief Medical Officers have published guidelines giving recommended levels of physical activity. For adults the recommended amount of physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes vigorous) activity per week, and the amount differs for children who should be active for at least 60 minutes and up to several hours every day.

The easiest way for most people to incorporate physical activity into their lives is through walking more.  Walking is a very easy and accessible way to improve our health; it is a free mode of transport and recreation and most people are able to walk. Walking for 30 minutes a day five days a week could actually reduce the risk of:

  • All-cause mortality (by approx. 30%)
  • Coronary heart disease and stroke (by approx. 20-35%)
  • Type 2 diabetes (by approx. 30% to 40%)
  • Osteoporosis (reduced by almost 70% at the highest level of physical activity)
  • Osteoarthritis (ranges from risk reduction of 20% to over 80%)
  • Some cancers (approx. 30% lower risk of colon cancer, and approx. 20% lower risk of breast cancer)
  • Depression and mental health issues (approx. 20% to 30% lower risk for depression and dementia)

Studies have shown that walking in the natural environment is particularly good, as it’s associated with many benefits for mental health, including significantly lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety, as well as boosting mental wellbeing.  

However, currently only 66% of Scottish adults meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity.  Even those who are active may still spend a large proportion of their day sitting down, in front of a computer, driving or watching TV.  Women are significantly less active than men with a smaller proportion of women than men meeting the physical activity guidelines (62% and 70% respectively).

These low levels of physical inactivity contributes to 2,565 deaths per year.  In addition to the cost of human years, physical inactivity also costs the NHS in Scotland around £94.1m per year. 

Further reading: 

Updated July 2020