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Starting a Community Walking Program: A 9-Step Plan

The U.S. is in the midst of a healthcare revolution. The shift toward preventive, value-based care means more Americans understand the importance of physical activity in treating diseases or preventing them altogether. But which activity will people actually do? For many, simply going for a walk is the most accessible and sustainable way to transition from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one.

Our nation’s desire to get people moving creates an unprecedented opportunity for fitness professionals to work with healthcare providers, employers and communities to help more people realize the benefits of exercise. Launching a walking program is a great way to make that happen. First I’ll dive into the details of why this is such an excellent idea; then I’ll show you ways to start a walking program in your community.

Why Walking?

Because it’s so popular. Most adults prefer walking over other forms of physical activity, surveys find (HHS 2015). What’s the root of this preference?

  • Walking provides an easy way to start and maintain a physically active lifestyle combining exercise, health promotion, fun and transportation.
  • It lets people be nurturing (when walking a dog or pushing a stroller), social (when walking with family or friends) or meditative (when walking alone).
  • Walking requires no special skills or equipment, carries a low risk of injury and offers a lot of flexibility in choosing the right amount of effort and intensity.

Because of its many physical and mental health benefits. Walking helps prevent or treat dozens of diseases (see Table 1). In many cases, exercise is as effective as antidepressants and therapy for depression (Cooney et al. 2013) and at least as effective as routinely prescribed medications such as metformin for prediabetes (Malin et al. 2012).

Barriers to Overcome

What’s keeping people from walking? Barriers include lack of time, safety concerns, disabilities, chronic health conditions, poor community design and a preference for sedentary leisure activities such as watching TV, surfing the Internet and playing video games (HHS 2015).

Government health statistics bear this out: In the United States, just half of adults meet the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines, which recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or a combination of the two (HHS 2015). That’s about 3,000 steps—or 1.5 miles—in 30 minutes, 5 days per week. Fewer than a quarter of teens meet the recommendation that all children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day (HHS 2015).

How did we get this way? Until recently, community plans didn’t pay much heed to sidewalks and biking trails. Lack of opportunities for active commuting discouraged walking and biking to work, school and stores. Many schools began neglecting physical education and recess, placing more focus on academic subjects and not recognizing at the time the notable benefits to attention, executive function and academic performance when physical activity is incorporated into a child’s school day.

Even with the benefits of basic exercise like walking so easily within reach, most people still aren’t taking advantage of it. These obstacles are formidable, but they are not insurmountable.

A Nine-Step Plan for Starting a Walking Program

Launching a walking initiative enables you to provide a community service and strengthen community partnerships. Furthermore, it lets you diversify and grow your business by connecting with beginning exercisers who have never worked with a fitness pro before. In short, this is a prime opportunity to pursue personal or business goals while helping out your community.

Consider these nine steps as you prepare to launch a walking program.

  1. Define Your Business Model. What are your main goals? Do you aim to reach new clients, expand and broaden offerings for current clients, generate more revenue, or strengthen relationships with community partners? Let your motivations and goals inform your business plan. Approach pricing and packages the same way you might with other group-based activity programs.
  2. Identify the Target Audience. Which groups are you trying to reach? Do you want families, older adults, people with special health conditions, or all of the above? Will referrals come from a worksite or a medical clinic, from schools or a faith-based organization? How will you accommodate people who walk at different speeds?
  3. Find an Ideal Location. Where you walk can make or break your program. Account for weather and other community factors, and aim for a place that is easy to access, safe, and enjoyable for walking. Do a practice walk and make sure you get any necessary permits or liability insurance before the first session.
  4. Define the Program. Is the walking program exclusively walking, or will you incorporate circuits or strengthening exercises as well? How long will it last? What will the frequency be?

For more information—including steps 5–9 of the nine-step program; a special sidebar, “Adapting High-Intensity Interval Training Programs to Walking”; and a full reference list—please see “Get Them Walking!” fron the May 2016 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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