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The First Step

Creative walking programs encourage new exercisers and serve as growth venues.

By mid-March, most of the “New Year’s resolution members” have vanished. The beach-bound bodies, once focused on shaping up before spring break, have come and gone. This is the fitness industry’s slow season, when group fitness class numbers dwindle and new personal training clients are a little tough to come by.

But spring is also a perfect time to think creatively about attracting new members and clients. Generally we focus our efforts on keeping current members entertained, drawing in people who need to get back in shape before summer and appealing to other “usual suspects.” Instead of concentrating on the people who are likely to turn to you when the timing is right, why not focus on those who haven’t even made it to your door yet? Typically, nonexercisers are intimidated by the club atmosphere and also by the thought of starting any program that is regimented, lengthy and uncomfortable. By providing a program that intercepts these objections, you can positively impact the bottom line and create clients for life.

Walking is the one activity we all do that transcends generation, socioeconomic status, education level, athletic ability and gender. In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of programs based on this low-risk, low-impact, easy-to-start activity. The beauty lies in its simplicity, variability and growth potential. Beginning a walking program is an ingenious way to open your doors to the millions of Americans who need help. You can help offset the obstacles they face. Rather than begging them to come in and meet you on your home turf, go out and greet them at the end of the driveway, which very well may be the first step in changing their minds and their lives.

Why Walk?

Simply type “walking program” in any search engine and you will find a tremendous amount of information, including tips for getting started, types of walking (recreational, race walking, etc.), virtual support groups for those walking solo, special-population programs, competitions and much more.

Why are walking programs so popular?

  • Almost everyone knows how to walk, so there isn’t much of a learning curve to start.
  • The location is flexible. You don’t necessarily have to go indoors (or, conversely, leave your house), and you can walk wherever your job or family may take you.
  • Walking is a low-impact, low-risk activity that provides long-term health benefits. Exercise doesn’t have to hurt in order to work.

Fitness professionals may overlook walking because it’s not something they typically do for their own training. They may overestimate the activity’s simplicity, which can lead many to believe that if it’s so easy, why can’t people do it on their own? However, the benefits are incredible, and fitness professionals can start sharing the news.

Physical benefits include weight and blood pressure management, decreased risk of heart attack and stroke, higher HDL levels, reduced risk of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes, relief from arthritis and back pain, and stronger muscles, bones and joints (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1996). Research is also finding that walking may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Podewils et al. 2005).

Psychological benefits include stress reduction and improvements in sleep, endorphin production, problem-solving capabilities and self-esteem. Since walking is relatively easy to start and master, clients associate positive feelings with it and enjoy a good success rate. This in turn leads to higher retention. Once walkers build confidence, they have the potential to embark on a variety of plans to increase their fitness levels.

Getting Started

To get a walking program going for nonexercisers, first research existing programs (see “Program Choices” on page 51) and determine whether any of them would be a good fit for your community, schedule and area of expertise. If not, plan your own program. Then begin marketing, setting a launch date far enough ahead to give you ample time to consider all logistics.

With so many program options—some already created, others you would plan yourself—how do you choose? First decide whom you want to attract. Are you interested in reaching outside your facility, beyond the typical clientele? Or are you primarily concerned with providing a new cardiovascular program to satisfy members not currently under trainer or instructor supervision?

Next, take a look at yourself. You must be able to embrace walking as a viable exercise program that is ripe with possibilities. You must also be excited about working with the target clientele. If you understand the benefits of walking but are not suited to this type of training or population, perhaps someone else on your staff is interested. The key is identifying a champion eager to work with this unique group and provide a positive experience, paving the way for a future in which fitness is a lifestyle.

Last, determine your overall goal. Is this a program that will cycle onto the schedule each season with official start and stop dates? Or will it be an ongoing class that participants pay for as they go? Are you hoping to springboard other ideas off your original walking program as people progress? Your answer to this last question will have a significant impact on where you begin.

A smart idea when starting a program for nonexercisers is to set up a free informational meeting. Focus on the benefits of walking and include guidelines on getting started, along with compelling research about the health advantages and quality-of-life improvements that walkers enjoy. You might even offer free giveaways, such as mileage trackers or pedometers. Toward the end of the meeting, describe your program and invite attendees to join. Also consider the following:

  • Is this a structured program with stop and start dates, or is it an open program (participants can join at any time, and they can pay a certain price per walk or buy a “package”)?
  • How many times per week will the group walk? Will you provide options (with different prices for different frequencies)?
  • Where will you walk? Remember that nonexercisers probably want to be out of the eyes of “fit folks” and may not even like to come near a fitness facility.
  • What time will you meet, and how far will you go? Keep in mind that an hour seems like eternity for some.
  • What will participants get (pedometer, e-mails, mileage/step tracking, informational handouts)?

At your first session or as members register, set additional guidelines, verbally and in writing:

  • Will you walk if it’s raining or snowing?
  • Will you allow cell phones and headphones during walks?
  • Will members notify you if they can’t make it, or will the group just walk with whoever shows up?

Once your group is up and walking, you may think of creative ways to keep the group motivated and moving toward a healthier lifestyle. Try the following perks:

  • Give your group a name and provide T-shirts.
  • Enter charity walk-a-thons, community parades or 5K races as a group.
  • Set up a buddy system for communicating outside of scheduled workouts, to encourage further activity.

Focus on motivating your group. Find ways to keep everyone committed to improving. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite a colleague to talk about fitness and healthy eating.
  • Find and share articles or websites on walking.
  • Share success stories.
  • Make a list of all the benefits of walking, and review them
  • Create springboard programs (walking with props, walking for special populations, walking plus strength training or yoga).

Before you start your program, educate yourself about appropriate warm-up and cool-down strategies, as well as injury prevention. Research proper form and technique, and keep in mind that walking programs are not simply scaled-back running programs. One advantage of a preset program is that it will provide safety education.

Program Choices

If you want to offer a walking program for the inactive but don’t feel like starting from scratch, there are several pre-established ideas to choose from for both members and nonmembers. Of course, what you decide to deliver will be based on your personal likes, dislikes and expertise, as well as your needs. Model your program after one listed here or create your own based on the ideas presented.

Walk-Only Programs

10,000 Steps a Day. The “10,000 Steps a Day” program, created by Shape Up America!, offers a basic way to jump-start a walking program in your area. The program was developed on the heels of The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001). With research showing that 10,000 steps a day equated to approximately 30 minutes of moderate activity (the suggested amount for managing weight and promoting health and well-being), Shape Up America! set out to determine exactly how much exercise 10,000 steps amounted to, how to accumulate it and how to keep individuals motivated. The organization provides basic information regarding the recommendation, how to get started with a pedometer and informational handouts suitable for reprinting.

A walking program with a goal of reaching as many people as possible, especially nonexercisers, may be loosely modeled after this program and expanded later. Organize groups based on common schedules, interests, exercise readiness or goals. Then determine each individual’s baseline (how many steps he or she is currently accumulating in a day). Set goals for increasing this number in daily, weekly or monthly increments. Advance clients as they attain goals until the 10,000 steps a day are met or exceeded. Provide pedometers, charts for logging progress and/or prizes for achieving top numbers.

Mall Walking. If you are interested in a program that helps combat the anxiety of coming to a club, meets at a different location and encourages an entirely new group to join you, mall walking may be a good fit. This program involves walking through a shopping mall during off-hours.

There are several advantages to mall walking. The indoor climate is comfortable, and there is easy access to restrooms. The risk of walking indoors is low. Nonexercisers are more likely to embrace the venue, because fewer people will be watching. The relative privacy is a huge bonus for those intimidated by a gym or an outdoor setting. Check with your local mall before you start, as many larger facilities have already instituted programs that include tracking, free lectures, rewards/incentives, technique instruction and more. If a program is currently set up, ask how your facility can work in conjunction with it or if you can start an independent program.

If nothing currently exists, you may have to work with mall management to develop a program from the ground up. When presenting your case, use the following selling points to convince management that your program is a win-win situation:

  • The mall walkers are present during hours when the mall would otherwise be mostly unoccupied, so there is no chance of crowding out paying customers.
  • Mall walkers generally require little supervision, but since the mall is preparing to open, the security staff is usually already on-site.
  • After walking, mall walkers generally shop the stores or patronize the mall’s food court, increasing traffic during what would otherwise be the very slow opening hour.
  • Mall-walking programs provide good, often free, publicity for the mall owners.

Once you have the mall management’s support, set a time and location to meet, determine a route, determine how long that route is and get to work.

Treadmill Programs. If you want to start a program for new members with a nonexercise background, group treadmill walking may be a good option. With treadmill walking, as with indoor cycling, instructing means leading participants through a set regimen. You teach them how to find an appropriate starting speed and then challenge them with various speed and incline intervals while describing intensities. Jennifer Renfroe, regional director of group fitness for Crunch Fitness in Atlanta, has grown her treadmill program to an average of 15 participants per class. Although her class has now transformed into a running program, she says many of her runners started as new exercisers and walkers in need of a little encouragement and motivation. “The class is appealing because it is nonintimidating,” she says, “It is not in the group fitness room, and there are no mirrors. What I love is that many of those walkers have turned into runners and have significantly changed their fitness levels and lives.”

Walking With Props

Nordic Walking uses specifically designed poles to engage the upper body, which can increase intensity. The technique was first used as a summer training method by cross-country skiers. The Finnish sports equipment manufacturer Exel Oyj expanded the idea and developed a fitness program with customized training equipment in 1997. When examined “in the field,” walking with poles has been shown to increase oxygen use and caloric expenditure (compared with regular walking), without significantly increasing perceived exertion.

Lakeshore Athletic Club–Flatiron, outside of Boulder, Colorado, runs a successful Nordic Walking program called STRIDE. “Walking is the perfect exercise, as it is a basic skill,” says June Kahn, Pilates director. “Walking with a group is a great way to encourage commitment, as the members build relationships with one another. Adding . . . poles has made a good concept a great one at our club and thoroughly enhanced the benefits of our participants’ walking programs by adding an upper-body component.” Kahn suggests mapping out routes before launching your program and having your fitness staff practice proper technique and learn how to teach novices. Instructors should be mindful of outdoor safety, especially if using trails or remote areas.

Adding poles to walking workouts increases effort and is often enough to break through plateaus with clients who plan to continue walking as their primary mode of exercise. You can also stock the poles in your retail center and sell them to members. Not only does this increase revenue; it also enables and encourages clients to take the program home.

Walking Vests. If your walking program needs a challenge, consider using weighted vests. Unlike ankle or handheld weights, which are not recommended owing to the added strain they can cause, weighted vests evenly distribute weight and are considered a safe way to increase caloric expenditure without changing technique or speed.

Beyond Walking

Stroller-Based Walking Programs. Stroller-based exercise programs encourage participants to bring their children while they work out. Some groups incorporate resistance tubing, creating an interval workout that includes walking, jogging and strength training at parks, malls and every place in between. You can tie into one of the nationally recognized stroller programs by becoming a trained instructor or a franchise owner. Stroller-based programs are a perfect way to ease moms back into working out without the hassle of organizing childcare. Getting moms outside and interacting with others in a similar place in life is a great way to encourage retention through relationships.

Suburban/Urban/Off-Road Walking. If you are interested in targeting your current gym population or eventually advancing the novice walking participant, pick up the pace and create
interval-style outdoor workouts. Suburban or urban walking provides many opportunities for creative workouts. Add sports-conditioning drills using curbs or parking lot lines. Use stairs for bounding strength drills or do hill repeats on a steep incline to rev up the workout.

Stacey Lei Krauss, founder of willPower Productions, runs a fee-based outdoor training program in San Francisco called “willPower warrior workout for women.” When choosing a location, Krauss looks for an area that provides a varied terrain (stairs, curbs, ledges) and limited exposure to onlookers. She incorporates traditional walking, jogging and strength exercises, as well as playful sports drills, such as throwing footballs and dribbling basketballs.

Program Refinement

The ideas mentioned above merely scratch the surface when it comes to the many walking programs you may want to try. Model a program after the ones presented, or create your own. Before launch, take time to outline your reasons for beginning this venture. Specifically, determine whom you are anxious to attract and why, and plan for the future. Having a clear picture of the upcoming 12 months will help you prepare your initial program.

Fitness professionals have amazing potential to enhance the lives of people both inside and outside the fitness facility. Find appropriate offerings that pique the interests of nonexercisers, have a short learning curve and don’t necessarily require the typical “gym” experience. Next, meet nonexercisers where they currently are in regard to physical and psychological readiness. Remember that 60 minutes might seem like an eternity to a new exerciser. Of course, be creative in your design, building confidence at an appropriate rate. Nonexercisers need the constant motivation of meeting and exceeding short-term goals. Walking programs, if properly organized, operated and managed, can help do all of the above.

Make a commitment to think outside the box and support the large percentage of the U.S. population considered insufficiently active. Provide this segment with a variety of fun and interesting walking programs, along with quality instruction. It’s an exciting way to Inspire the World to Fitness® from a unique angle.


Podewils, L.J., et al. 2005. Physical activity, APOE genotype and dementia risk: Findings from the Cardiovascular Health Cognition Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 161 (7), 639–51.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1996. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2001. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. Rockville, MD.

Shannon Fable

Shannon Fable is a sought-after speaker, author and thought leader in the area of fitness business development and strategic innovation. She has spent more than two decades helping impressive brands such as Anytime Fitness, ACE, FIT4MOM® and BOSU® with business and program development. Fable served as chair of the ACE Board of Directors and is the co-founder of GroupEx PRO®, a cloud-based group fitness management tool that she successfully sold to Daxko in 2019. As a certified Book Yourself Solid® business coach, she helps fitness professionals navigate the industry to build scalable and sustainable careers.

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