Good old-fashioned brisk walking on a regular basis may trump gym workouts and other types of exercise when it comes to managing weight.
London School of Economics researchers wanted to look at associations between various types of physical activity and weight, so they analyzed data collected from 1999 to 2012 from the country's annual Health Survey of England.
They tracked how often people participated in 30-minute sessions of walking at a fast pace, as well as how often people played sports or took part in exercises such as swimming, cycling, working out at the gym, dancing, running, football, tennis, squash, and sit-ups, among other activities. The researchers also took into account heavy housework and manual labor, such as digging, chopping word, and moving heavy loads or furniture.
They then analyzed data collected on people's body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.
Their study, published in the journal Risk Analysis, showed that men and women who regularly walked briskly for more than 30 minutes had lower BMIs (a high BMI can be an indicator of higher body fat) as well as smaller waists compared with people who engaged in regular sports or exercise, said lead author Grace Lordan, a doctor of health economics.
"Our study highlights that people will do better at sticking to a physical activity if they participate at a level that makes them just work beyond what is comfortable for them personally," Lordan told CBS News.
Participating in exercise and sports was also linked to better BMIs and waist size, coming in ahead of heavy labor and housework, but brisk walking won out overall, the authors report.
The association between brisk walking and weight also appeared strongest in low-income women -- and women in general -- as well as those over age 50.
Dr. Rex Ahima, director of the Obesity Unit at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism, said the study gives a snapshot of activity levels and weight, but he points out that the research does not show cause and effect.
However, Ahima said, it explores a valid public health question. "I think it puts obesity within an economic context, although they didn't calculate any costs. We'll see more of this in the future -- experts looking at health and economic impact."
He said it would have been interesting to look at other measures, too. "They're using weight and waist circumference, but as you know, exercise tends to benefit the heart and lungs, too. I wish that was something they could have measured in their study -- cardiopulmonary health measurements," said Ahima.
The authors said that the results support an argument for a public health campaign to promote walking.
"A simple policy message that 'every step counts' may be a step towards curbing the upward trend in obesity rates and beneficial for other health outcomes," they wrote.
Lordan added, "If you are an average person who is overweight, it will be easier for you to adopt walking as a long term health change into your lifestyle."