A 9-Step Plan for Starting a Walking Program

Why it's a great idea to start a walking program in your community, and how you can get moving on it.

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
(www.everybodywalk.org), which aims to inspire people to move more, and
America Walks (www.americawalks.org), 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 calling
on 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 clinic
  • Ask if the patient exercises regularly or engages
    in physical activity.
  • Associate physical activity with reduced risk of
    heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many cancers.
  • Write a prescription for an agreed-upon daily
    physical activity.
  • Encourage use of a pedometer and advise
  • Recognize success and encourage reluctant

Fitness professionals can be e


ACE (American Council on Exercise). 2015. Walk the talk: A fitness professional’s guide to developing walking programs. Accessed Jan. 24, 2016. www.acefitness.org/advocacy/pdf/Walking_Toolkit_Pro.pdf.
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. www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/walking-and-walkable-communities.
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. www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/walking-extravaganza.
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, 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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