While a program of regular exercise can be difficult to get started (and stick with!), it is important to understand that you are not alone in trying to improve your health – literally. More evidence is growing that regular walking groups are good for not only your body but also your mind. Creating a walking group is a great way to improve your health while building supportive, positive relationships in your community.
The idea of gathering in a group to exercise is not new, but recent research has shown that people who joined walking groups experienced lower blood pressure, resting heart rate, and total cholesterol. Additionally, they had a lower body mass index, a good indicator of physical fitness, and were more likely to stick with regular exercise than those who walked alone.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia used data gathered from over 1,800 study participants in 14 countries. These walkers spent a total of 74,000 hours walking in groups that included people with health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Study leader Sarah Hanson of UEA’s Norwich Medical School pointed out that it isn’t just the activity that makes a walking group such a powerful tool for good health, saying:
“People who walk in groups also tend to have a more positive attitude toward physical activity, a shared experience of wellness, and say they feel less lonely and isolated. Taking regular walks can also be a catalyst for adopting other healthy behaviours. The research evidence suggests people enjoy attending walking groups and appear less likely to drop out than many other forms of activity.”
The social benefits of group walks appear to be amplified when they are taken out in nature instead of in a gym or at a track, even helping to ameliorate depression and stress. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that outdoor group walking significantly boosted mood and improved walkers’ sense of well-being. Senior author Sara Warber, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School and member of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, studied nearly 2,000 people participating in walks through the Walking for Health program in England. This program organizes over 70,000 walkers into 3,000 walks annually.
Warber pointed out the high return on investment when joining a walking group, specifically one that meets outdoors, saying:
“Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster. Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.”
It is clear that a walking group is a great way to improve both mental and physical fitness, but not every area has a regular group. Fortunately, it is easy to get one started.
Recruiting members is the first step. Start with the people you know, either family members, colleagues at work or friends, sending a group email to see if they would be interested and to find out what days and times might work best.
If you want to expand and offer the opportunity to more people, considering posting on Meetup. This free site is easy to use and gives you the opportunity to find like-minded people in your area. Sign up for free once you think you have a couple times and days in mind.
Consider a sponsorship
Is there a community organization near you that is already working on organizing health-related events? Consider asking them to sponsor walks to help spread the word. These sponsors can also work with you for local fundraising walks (e.g., breast cancer or heart health walks).
Hold a meeting
While some groups pick a time and date and just get started with their walks, others, especially those with more members who are not already acquainted, might want to hold an initial meeting to get to know everyone in the group. This meeting should be held in a public place, like a park or a coffee shop, and should be brief and informal.
Pass around a list for emails, phone numbers, and names for those who would like to stay in touch or get regular information on walks.
Agree on some rules and goals
At the initial meeting, it may be helpful to set some basic rules for the group. Important decisions may include:
- What types of inclement weather you will and won’t walk in (snow, sleet, excessive heat, etc.)
- Where walks will take place (indoors, outdoors, or both)
- Whether or not electronic devices (cell phones, iPods, etc.) will be allowed
- Whether or not animals are welcome
- Age limits on walkers
This is also the time to set goals for the group if you wish. Maybe you want to walk 1,000 miles. Maybe you want to build up to a long-distance walk. Maybe you want to walk the entire length of a particular road (like Get Fit on Route 66), or trace the footsteps of an historical figure. Goals can help keep everyone motivated.
Take a walk
Get out there and walk. As the group organizer, keep track of where you walked, who participated, and any notes on the walk itself (weather, terrain, funny or interesting occurrences). You can do this on paper or any of the numerous exercise tracking apps available.
Whether it is months in existence, miles walked, or some other goal reached by the walking group, take some time to celebrate. Potlucks or a simple meeting at a coffee shop can be a great way to mark the occasion.
Evaluate and recalibrate
After several walks, take some time to figure out what is working and what needs work in your walking group. People may be slow to join or attendance may be spotty. Think of ways to recruit more people so there is always a group, even if it is fluid and changing.
For more great information and resources on starting your own walking group, take a look at the American Heart Association’s page on starting and joining a walking club.