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 Walk?

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.

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.

Community Benefits

In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General issued Step It Up! The Surgeon
General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities
the sidebar “How to Support a Walk-Friendly Agenda”). The report urges
communities to improve access to safe and convenient places for walking
and wheelchair rolling, and to embrace a culture that supports these
activities for people of all ages and abilities (HHS 2015).

Why is walking so great for communities? Here’s how the surgeon general
put it:

Safer communities. Communities built for walkers have more crossing signals, pedestrian
signs, turnabouts and other features that slow down traffic and decrease

Stronger social networks. Walkable communities offer people more opportunities to spend time outside walking, whether it’s with family and friends, as part of a
walking group, in walking meetings or engaged in other outings. Stronger
social networks ultimately make communities stronger.

Less air pollution. People drive less—decreasing pollution and congestion—if it’s feasible
to walk to work or anywhere else in their communities.

More vibrant local communities. Walkable communities have safe, pedestrian-friendly streets, mixed
land use and access to transit, which promote higher home values, more
retail activity, wider employment and lower utility costs (HHS 2015).

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 advise
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

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

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?

Check out the sidebar “Adapting High-Intensity Interval Training
Programs to Walking” for sample high-intensity interval training walking
programs reviewed in a 2013 IDEA Fitness Journal article on
walking (McCormick, Mermier & Kravitz 2013). In addition, consider these
key points summarized by the authors:

  • Feet and ankle weights increase energy expenditure but also raise the
    risk for overuse injuries.
  • Weighted vests (5%–20% of body weight) increase energy expenditure and
    may be especially beneficial for people who cannot quicken their
    walking speed. > >
  • Carrying light weights is not effective at increasing energy
    expenditure, and carrying asymmetric weights (weight in one hand only)
    may contribute to injury.
  • Treadmill walking at an incline of 6%–9% increases energy expenditure
    significantly, and if people cannot walk quickly, it can help them
    achieve sufficient energy expenditure for weight management at speeds
    as low as 1.7 miles per hour.

5. Prepare to Make Your Case

Develop materials to share with potential clients, healthcare providers,
employers, community leaders, public health officials and other likely
partners who may be interested in referring people to your walking
program. Explain its benefits, and state your credentials and interests.

6. Measure and Monitor

Walkers will see larger gains and boast more vocally about your program
if they measure and monitor their activity. Consider recommending the
use of activity trackers or pedometers, and create systems for setting
goals and for reporting and sharing results, barriers and successes.

7. Go With Proven Successes

There may already be effective walking initiatives in your community.
The sidebar “Walking Programs That Work” highlights several such
programs that serve populations like new moms, school-aged kids and
their families, people with or at risk for chronic disease, and those
managing and recovering from severe disabilities. These programs have
evolved into national initiatives tailored to make a lasting, meaningful
impact in local communities.

8. Use Challenges to Motivate

Keep your walking group motivated and interested with engaging
opportunities. Potential challenges are described in the sidebar
“Challenges and Opportunities That Boost Engagement 
and Success.” > >

Table 1

9. Join the Bigger Conversation

There’s an incredible movement afoot begging for fitness professionals’
engagement and advocacy. For instance, the National Physical Activity
Plan is led by a collection of organizations—including fitness industry
leaders like the American College of Sports Medicine and the American
Council on Exercise—that are working together to help all sectors of
society translate the Physical Activity Guidelines into action.

The Surgeon General’s Step It Up! report urges every sector
to do more to support walking. Providing grassroots opportunities to get
involved are advocacy movements like the Every Body Walk! Collaborative
(, which aims to inspire people to move more, and
America Walks (, which helps to improve community
conditions for walking. Legislation under consideration in Congress
would help fund infrastructure and walking efforts. Clearly, the
momentum is growing, and fitness professionals are poised to take a
leadership role.

Walking Toward Wellness

As a simple and inclusive activity, walking is primed to help turn a
nation of inactive, stressed and chronically ill citizens toward more
movement, greater wellness and better health. It also provides an
opportunity to link healthcare and worksite wellness initiatives with
fitness professionals. This new reality begins when fitness leaders put
their best foot forward and show the way.

Doctors Urged to Prescribe More Exercise

Alarmed by our overwhelmingly sedentary and unhealthy population, healthcare leaders are callingon physicians and their industry to routinely prescribe exercise, in general—and walking, in particular. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association (Berra, Ripee & Manson 2015) recommends that clinicians do the following to integrate physical activity counseling into their practices:

  • Make physical activity a vital sign at each clinicvisit.
  • Ask if the patient exercises regularly or engagesin physical activity.
  • Associate physical activity with reduced risk ofheart disease, stroke, diabetes and many cancers.
  • Write a prescription for an agreed-upon dailyphysical activity.
  • Encourage use of a pedometer and adviserecordkeeping.
  • Recognize success and encourage reluctantadopters.

Fitness professionals can be excellent partnersin helping people follow the advice of clinicians who are promoting physical activity. For example, a fitness professional could partner with a healthcare provider to offer a turnkey walking program to patients who, based on screening measures such as the physical activity vital sign, are found to engage in low levels of physical activity. The principal challenge is that evidence suggests most people’s walking programs will not have enough intensity and duration to meet physical activity recommendations (HHS 2015). That’s why people need the help of fitness professionals who can inspire them to become more active, producing better outcomes across a variety of health conditions (Muth, Vargo & Bryant 2015).

How To Support A Walk-Friendly Agenda

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Step It Up! report (2015) urges communities to adopt multiple programs and policy approaches to support walking:

  • Enhanced access to places for walking, and more communication on the benefits of walking and exercise. Such places include health, fitness and recreational facilities. The Call to Action urges fitness facilities to make it easier and more appealing for community members to show up and walk. Fitness pros can help out by co-sponsoring and co-promoting local walking initiatives.
  • Social support through the development of walking groups. The surgeon general urges communities to organize walking groups. Who better to do that than a trained and qualified fitness professional?
  • Individually adapted health behavior-change programs. These are programs that are tailored to a person’s interests, preferences, abilities and readiness to change, and are delivered by “a health professional or trainer.” The Call to Action comes right out and says it: Trainers are a key part of the solution in helping community members to make lasting physical activity changes.
  • Communitywide campaigns. The surgeon general’s report defines a communitywide campaign as a “concentrated effort to promote physical activity that combines . . . media coverage and promotions, risk factor screening and education, community events, and policy or environmental changes.” Examples include things like building a walking trail, setting up walking groups at a worksite or school, and offering physical activity counseling at a community event or location. These are all within the fitness professional’s area of expertise.
Adapting High-Intensity Interval Training Programs to Walking


Walking Programs That Work

Interested in starting a walking program, but feel you’d rather jump onboard with an established initiative? Consider getting involved in one of these programs, in whatever role suits you best:

Stroller Strides® ( Started by founding mom Lisa Druxman, MA, in 2001, Stroller trides is a national franchise (now part of the larger Fit4Mom® corporation) that helps new moms get and stay fit by walking, jogging and working out with their infants and toddlers. Stroller Strides is active in 2,000 communities across the United States, with employment and franchise opportunities available.

Walking School Bus ( In an effortto counter the trend of kidswho live less than a mile fromschool being dropped offby busy parents rather thanwalking or riding to school,the Walking School Bus program offers communities asafe alternative. A walkingschool bus is a group of kids, typically from the same neighborhood, walking to school with one or more adults, who often taketurns covering the walk-to-school “shift.”An increasing number of communities have jumped onboard with this initiative. If youare interested in starting your own walking school bus, free online training is availableat

Walk with a Doc ( David Sabgir, MD, was a frustrated cardiologist, repeatedly giving his patients the same advice (“Move more”) but seeing little change. Instead of sitting around being upset, he decided to make a difference. He rallied a few patients on a Saturday morning to walktogether. It evolved into a movement in Columbus, Ohio, his hometown,and then to communities across the country (203 and counting). Now, as a fitness professional, you can partner with local physicians to start your own Walk with a Doc program. Not only does it help community members get moving, but it also offers an opportunityfor fitness professionals and physicians to network and make meaningful connections.

Project Walk ( A spinal-cord injury is a devastating experience. Many patients are told the likelihood of ever walking again is slim to none. But that doesn’t hold them back, nor does it stop the committed and skilled fitness professionals from Project Walk. They are trained in exercise rehabilitation methods and work side by side with individuals who have special health needs. The outcomes speak for themselves. For example, the first Project Walk franchise—in Claremont, California—now boasts 60 current and former clients with spinal-cord injury. All had a life-changing transformation from their Project Walk experience, and many were able to walk again. Their successes resulted from tremendous grit combinedwith support and advocacy from healthcare providers and the Claremont Club staff, led by founder and CEO Mike Alpert, a medical fitness pioneer.

Challenges and Opportunities That Boost Engagement and Success

Keep your walking program fun by incorporating one or more of these challenges recommended by the American Council on Exercise in their walking toolkit (ACE 2015).

The team competition. The team competition works in a variety of settings, neighborhoods, worksites, faith communities and online communities, as well as with friends and family. Gather a group of people and divide them into teams. Ask each participant to contribute a set amount to the prize money (e.g., $5). Each team then tracks its combined miles for a set period of time (e.g., 6 weeks). The team that has walked the most miles at the end of the competition is declared the winner. It’s simple and effective. Of course,this type of competition can also be done among individuals, rather than teams, but teams are an effective way to create an encouraging support network for each participant.

The scavenger hunt. A neighborhood scavenger hunt can provide a whole afternoon or an entire day of active adventure. You can create your own or use a mobile phone application, such as geocaching (outdoor treasure hunting using GPS).

The walking tour. Taking a walking tour is an excellent way to learn something new and get some activity. Create a list of walking tours in your area (e.g., cities, parks, nature preserves), and challenge yourself and others to complete all of the tours withina certain timeframe. Or create your own walking tours in some of your favorite areas.

The peak challenge. If you live near a mountain range, you can challenge yourself and others to reach a certain number of mountain peaks in a set period of time. In the Adirondacks, for example, a popular challenge is to reach all 46 high peaks of the mountain range.

The charity walk. Walk with a larger purpose! Create a walking team to train for and participate in one of the many great charity walks, such as the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Another option is to download a mobile phone application, such as Charity Miles, that converts your miles into money you can donate to your favorite charity.

Source: Reprinted with permission from the American Council on Exercise Walking Toolkit. The complete toolkit is available for free at

IDEA Member Walks the Talk

When Leslie Sansone changed the title of her low-impact dance fitness class to “Walk Aerobics” several years ago, she didn’t realize she was on the cusp of a perambulation revolution. Sansone, executive producer of Walk Productions, 2014 National Fitness Hall of Fame inductee and an IDEA member since 1993, just wanted to make fitness accessible and fun for as many people as possible. Today, she is not only a successful walking proponent who offers numerous programs; she also helps the U.S. Surgeon General promote the Step It Up! Campaign. “The goal is to raise awareness,” says Sansone. “We need to reach as many people as possible and show them why walking matters.”

Some fitness professionals believe the false notion that walking isn’t challenging enough to yield significant health improvements. However, “research supports walking as a wonderful way to lose fat, strengthen muscles and train the heart,” says Sansone. “There’s plenty of room for many types of programs. One is not better than another.”

Sansone believes walking is a great solution for people of all abilities—and a perfect option for clients who need recovery days or a break from high-intensity activity. It can also bene-fit increasingly screen-bound fitness professionals, she says. “Technology is great, but it has made it more challenging to balance work and activity,” Sansone says. “Walking helps us all stay healthy and happy.”

For more information, visit


ACE (American Council on Exercise). 2015. Walk the talk: A fitness professional’s guide to developing walking programs. Accessed Jan. 24, 2016.
Berra, K., Rippe, J., & Manson, J.E. 2015. Making physical activity counseling a priority in clinical practice: The time for action is now. Journal of the American Medical Association, 314 (24), 2617-18.
Cooney, G.M., et al. 2013. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 9, Art. No. CD004366.
HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 2015. Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. Washington, DC: Office of the Surgeon General. Accessed Feb. 9, 2016.
Malin, S.K., et al. 2012. Independent and combined effects of exercise training and metformin on insulin sensitivity in individuals with prediabetes. Diabetes Care, 35 (1), 131-36.
McCormick, J.J., Mermier, C., & Kravitz, L. 2013. Walking extravaganza! IDEA Fitness Journal, 10, (9), 40-47. Accessed Jan. 24, 2016.
Muth, N.D., Vargo, K., & Bryant, C.X.B. 2015. The role of the fitness professional in the clinical setting. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 14 (4), 301-12.
Pedersen, B.K., & Saltin, B. 2015. Exercise as medicine—evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (Suppl. 3), 1-72.

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."

Leave a Comment

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.