A walking program in the park
Walking is the ideal form of exercise for people of all ages. This guide will help walk leaders organize walks in the park in their community.
We’re delighted you’re interested in starting a walking program in your community park. Walking is the ideal form of exercise for people of any age. It’s affordable, social and has a multitude of health benefits like increasing energy, reducing stress, and improving sleep. If you walk consistently, over a long term walking can help your group maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of many health issues like heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, obesity, and more. This guide will help you, the walk leader, understand how to get your community up and walking together.
In our experience, a good walk leader or walk assistant has the following key traits:
- Friendly, approachable, and welcoming.
- Reliable and punctual.
- Attuned to how others are feeling
- Able to collaborate with others
- Knowledgeable of basic first aid procedures.
- Familiar with the route (and alternatives).
If this sounds like you, let’s get started!
Breaking barriers to walking
If walking is so great, why aren’t more people doing it? That's a very good question! Before you set out to establish a walking group, it’s important to understand some of the real and perceived barriers people face when deciding whether to take up a new activity like walking.
As a walk leader, you’ll undoubtably need to address these barriers to get people on the path to better fitness and fun.
- Safe Paths: There are no paved paths in your community or they are in a state of disrepair or there is heavy road traffic and unsafe crossings at intersections, etc.
- Lack of Access: There's poor accessibility to your walking route such as lack of public transportation to get people to the walking site. Or, your walking path poses accessibility challenges like steep steps, or poor lighting.
- Am I able to walk? People worry about their health status, body image and whether they have the right clothes, shoes and equipment. They also worry that they won't be able to keep up with the group because of lack of fitness, experience or medical conditions.
- Will I be the only one? Participants may worry that no one else will show up to the walks or that they'll just be one or two people.
- Will I be safe? People will likely have concerns about personal safety associated with walking outdoors including fear of injury and falling.
- Why should I bother? Inevitably, people focus on the difficult and unpleasant parts of a new challenge.
Overcoming barriers to walking
There have been some interesting studies on what motivates people to walk in the community. Researchers have found that:
- People are 50 per cent more likely to walk for recreation or transport if they have a footpath on their street.
- People are twice as likely to walk if they have a pleasant physical environment.
- People are twice as likely to walk if they have friends to walk with or receive other forms of encouragement to walk.
In addition to finding walk locations that are pleasant, like your local park, and highlighting the social aspects of the walks, there are some key things you can do to make it more likely that people will sign up to walk with your group:
Planning for convenience and safety:
- Survey your group and determine the most convenient times to walk.
- Connect with the walkers and have an understanding of their needs as a group in terms of walk intensity, any physical constraints, etc.
- Holding walks activities close to public transport and encourage carpooling.
- Ensure the walk route is safe and predictable.
- Find a walk route that has seating, access to toilets, a water fountain and some shade.
- Provide information on suitable clothing, shoes and equipment to bring along on the walk.
Create a welcoming and fun environment:
- Be positive and encouraging for those starting out and encourage all members to keep coming back.
- Let people know that your walks will be easy to get to, safe, predictable and have amenities like access to bathrooms and shade.
- Give participants roles in the walking group so they feel valued and important. This can be as simple as taking attendance at each session.
- Provide companionship and encourage walkers to bring a friend along for the walk.
- Provide social activities in addition to participating in the walk, such as meeting for snacks after the group walk.
- Create walks such as ‘Wear a Funny Hat Day’ or support fundraising efforts like The Terry Fox Foundation or celebrate group members’ birthdays.
- Organize a guest speaker to talk about a topic of interest for the group.
Track your success and encourage goal setting:
- Use a pedometer to allow people to keep track of their steps. Tally up the group's steps and celebrate milestones like 10,000 steps.
- Encourage walkers to use the SMART goal structure to keep them focused on achievable goals.
The core elements and pace of your walking group
When it comes to your walking group, routine is a good thing. It keeps things predictable for everyone involved and makes sure everyone has a safe and fun experience. These are the elements of the walking club we encourage:
- Warm up: 5 - 10 minutes
- Walk Briskly: 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity in bouts of 10 minute intervals with short rest in between. Use the talk test to measure your intensity.
- Cool Down: 5 - 10 minutes
- Stretches: 5 - 10 minutes
The right pace and intensity:
Moderate intensity exercise consists of activities that cause a little sweat and increased breathing. While, vigorous intensity exercise consists of activities that cause sweating and heavy breathing.
You’ll want your walks to be on the moderate side. The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity of your walks and how participants are experiencing them. .
In general, if participants performing a at moderate-intensity should be able to talk, but not sing, during the activity. If participants are engaged in vigorous activity it they will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath. Use this test throughout the walk to check in on how participants are feeling and performing.
We advise that Walk Leaders carry the following equipment on their planned walks. It will be important to consider where this equipment will be stored in between sessions:
- 1 Backpack
- 1 First Aid Kit
- A cell phone
- A Pedometer
- A couple walking sticks to offer for walkers who need more stability.
Preparing a walk route
The walk route you select will play a big role in the success of your group. Here’s a checklist of questions to consider when planning where participants will walk.
Comfort and interest:
- Is the walking path wide enough?
- Is the surface even?
- Are there hills, obstacles or overhanging trees that might be difficult to circumvent?
- Is the scenery of the walk interesting and varied?
- What's the best time to schedule the walks so members can attend?
- Can the walk route be accessed by people with disabilities? For example, are there sloping curbs or ramps when crossing a road?
- Are the walk starting and finishing points conveniently located, easy to find and accessible by public transit?
- Are there toilets, shade, water and rest areas along the walk route?
- Are there any hazards or dangers along the route?
Before, during and after the walk
Walk day considerations:
Here are some tips for making participants feel welcomed.
- Arrive with enough time to welcome early arrivals (there are always early birds!)
- Introduce yourself – share your name and greet all walkers at the meeting point. Consider using name tags to jog people's memories.
- Welcome new participants and introduce them to other walkers.
- Take attendance and collect phone numbers and email addresses to follow up and remind them of the next walk and emergency contact information
- Inform people of what to expect on the walk: walk route, length of the walk, difficulty (slopes), and social activity after walk, etc.
- On the first walk, talk about correct clothing and footwear and how to take care of valuables during walk. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t have the perfect equipment this time and that comfort is the most important thing to consider.
- Ask walkers to notify the walk leader if they plan leave the group during the walk.
- Take a head count and keep track of how many people attend each time.
Review health Issues:
It's important to understand any health issues members of your group may face. Please review the following with walkers.
- Any health or physical concerns that you should know about e.g. allergies, physical pain, etc.
- Current level of physical activity and whether they’ve consulted with doctor about their walking participation. If there are participants that are concerned about their ability to walk, then have them contact their health care provider before joining the group.
- Explain the importance of comfortable proper footwear and clothing as well as sun protection for outdoor walks such as hat, sunscreen, sunglasses.
- Encourage walkers to drink plenty of water before, during and after the walk, suggest they bring their own reusable water bottles.
- Carry a First Aid Kit and mobile phone..
- Pace the walk at a speed that works for the whole group and remind people that there are opportunities for quick or slow walkers to congregate again during pauses along the route.
- Position yourself amongst the walkers to observe those who may have problems along the way.
- Encourage people to appropriately progress their walking speed and/or distance over numerous walking club sessions. Remind them to pace themselves!
- Remind people that they should be breathing a little faster but still able to hold a conversation while walking. They'll likely feel a little warmer and their heart rate will increase as they walk.
Observe for signs of distress and inform walkers to stop exercising immediately if they experience:
- Sickness or dizziness
- Excessive sweating
- Excessive fatigue
- Chest pain, discomfort or chest heaviness or tightness
- Muscle strain or cramp
- Significant breathlessness
General tips for group walks:
- Advise walkers to stay within the group but to walk at an appropriate pace for their level.
- Encourage walkers to pair up with people who walk at a similar pace.
- Allocate a front and back marker for the walk. For example a volunteer from the group, this can be rotating and perhaps they wear a “safety vest”, lapel button, or carry a whistle or hat to indicate they are the designated “markers” for the group.
- Explain to the group the role of the leader and safety precautions taken and those which the walkers should take.
- Discuss risk factors for falls and how to prevent them.
- Position yourself amongst the group to observe those who may have problems and don’t walk ahead of your group.
- Be friendly and approachable, chat along the way.
- Encourage people to appropriately progress their walking speed and/or distance.
After the walk:
- Consider doing some stretches and a gentle cool down with the group.
- Take a head count to ensure that all walkers have returned.
- Check-in to ensure that all walkers feel well.
- Thank people for attending, mention the date and time for the next walk and ask them to register for the next walk.
- Suggest they bring a friend or family member. Invite everyone to have free snacks and drinks at your community partner location, a picnic table, or local coffee shop.
- Allow time for questions and an informal chat.
Thank you Luisa DiSimone, Certified Seniors’ Fitness Instructor and Cinthya Narvaez, Certified Seniors Fitness Instructor with the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging for providing the context for this resources.
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