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Exercise and Physical Activity

Starting and Sustaining a Walking Club for Older Adults Toolkit

This walking clubs toolkit provides tips for those interested in starting and sustaining a walking club for older adults. 

In this toolkit:

Why Start a Walking Club for Older Adults?

Walking is a wonderful way for older adults to be physically active! It’s easy, it’s free, it’s relatively risk-free, and it doesn’t require costly equipment, a gym membership, or training. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people than ever are walking for physical activity. Walking is the most popular aerobic activity.

group of older adults walkingWalking is great exercise and when done briskly over time, it can build endurance—helping older adults walk farther, faster, or uphill. It also may make everyday activities such as gardening, shopping, or playing a sport easier.

Benefits of Walking Clubs

By starting a walking club, you are offering numerous benefits to older adults.

  • Health Benefits: When done regularly, walking at a brisk pace may offer these benefits:
    • Lower the risk of high blood pressure
    • Strengthen bones and muscles
    • Burn more calories
    • Lift moods
  • Accountability: Membership in a walking club may motivate older adults to stick with this form of exercise because they know others are counting on their participation.
  • Social connections: The social connections made in walking clubs can also offer older people a sense of wellbeing, emotional mental health, and a way to avoid a decline in overall health that can come with loneliness and depression (PDF, 2.6MB).
  • Safety in numbers: A walking club may also provide a way to be active for older adults who are reluctant to walk alone.

Getting Organized to Start a Walking Club

Before starting a walking club for older adults, consider what kind of structure you want for the club, how you will organize it, who your club members will be, how you will communicate with them, and how you will sustain the club.

Here are some questions to consider as you create a walking club.

  • Structure: What kind of group do you want to organize? A group of friends and family members? A regular ongoing event for anyone who shows up? A more formal group requiring signup and sign-ins? How large do you want it to be? Decide on a manageable size for your club.
  • Local Partners: Can you team up with a local organization that can help you attract members and promote the club? Organizations might include: community, recreation, or senior centers; parks or libraries; book clubs; fraternities and sororities; and faith-based organizations. You might even want to develop an intergenerational walk with a neighborhood school.
  • Leaders: Who will lead the club? Might you want more than one leader? Some walking clubs like to have two leaders—one to lead and one to walk behind with people who keep a slower pace. Will your leader(s) be volunteer or paid? If paid, will you charge membership fees, or could you find a local community partner willing to help support your effort?
  • Club Members: Do you already have a group in mind, or do you need to attract members to your new walking club? You may want to start with a small group of family and friends, or you may be seeking a community-wide club, in which case you will need to recruit walkers.
  • Kick-Off Meeting: Arrange to hold meeting at a local community center, library or other public and easily accessible location. Decide on a name for the club. Discuss goals for the club and details about the proposed walking activities. For more about the kick- off meeting and other organizing details, see “How to Start a Keep Moving Walking Club” from the Massachusetts Councils on Aging (MCOA).
  • Places to Walk: Will you walk on a city street? In a park? A residential neighborhood? A shopping mall? A rural area? Whatever location you decide on, consider safety, weather, convenience, and level of difficulty. Test out the walking route beforehand to determine its appropriateness. Have a backup plan for bad weather if your normal route is outdoors.
  • Walkability Audit: A walkability audit is designed to broadly assess pedestrian facilities, destinations and surroundings along and near a walking route (and also to identify specific improvements that would make the route more attractive and useful to pedestrians). You may wish to use this walkability audit tool (PDF, 39K) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help assess the safety and attractiveness of walking routes you are considering.
  • Days, Times: Select a day(s) and time(s) that you think will be most convenient for older walkers. Decide how often and how far you will walk. Seeing how many steps are recommended for daily physical activity may help your club set walking goals.
  • Tracking Progress: Decide if you would like to track individual and/or group progress. If so, these tracking tools may be helpful.
  • Waivers: Decide if you will need liability waivers for your club in case of injury. Make sure people include emergency contact information on their waivers.
  • Communication: Consider establishing a newsletter and using email or a social media platform like Facebook as way to stay in regular touch with club members. Use these tools to remind members of walking dates and notify them of scheduling changes. Emails and social media posts can also be used to keep people motivated and provide tips on other types of exercise to do when not walking.

Safety First

There are many safety issues to consider when organizing a walking club. Read the important safety information below and share it with members of your club.

Should people see a doctor before they start walking?

Because exercise is good for most people at all ages, most people do not need to see a doctor before they start a walking program. However, you should check with your doctor if you:

  • Have a chronic health problem such as a heart condition, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
  • Are over 40 years old and have been inactive.

You also should talk with your doctor if, while walking, you get dizzy, feel faint or short of breath, or have chest, neck, shoulder, or arm pain.

Shoes and Attire

Learn more about finding the right fitness clothes and shoes and help ensure your club members have appropriate shoes and attire for walking.

Have a Safe Walk

Remember that some places are safer than others when you’re walking outdoors. Keep safety in mind when planning where the group will walk.

Choose a Safe Route

  • Choose routes that are well used, well lit, and safe.
  • Avoid busy streets and routes that include busy intersections.
  • Walk on a sidewalk or a path whenever possible.
  • Choose walking routes that have spots for rest breaks.
  • Choose routes that are easily accessible by public transportation and/or provide adequate parking.
  • Check out school tracks or city parks. Many parks have walking or jogging trails away from traffic.
  • Do a test walk of the route before the walking club attempts it.
  • Schedule walks for daylight hours.
  • Choose a route that has enough room for a group to walk together.
  • Watch for bridges and narrow shoulders.
  • Be prepared to walk single file if the road becomes too narrow to accommodate side-by-side walking.
  • If there is inclement weather, walk in an indoor mall or shopping center.

Check the Weather

Make sure it's not too hot, cold, or windy to walk safely outside. Consider rescheduling your walk, organizing a walk indoors, or getting the group together for an indoor exercise class or video if the weather is not safe. Know the signs of heat-related illness and get medical help right away if you think someone may be in danger. Similarly, get medical help right away if you think someone might be experiencing hypothermia, a dangerous drop in body temperature. Know the signs of hypothermia.

Stay Alert

  • Stay alert at all times. If you’re chatting with fellow walkers, be aware of your surroundings. Try to avoid talking on the phone as you walk.
  • If you’re listening to music as you walk, turn down the volume so you can still hear people’s voices, car horns, barking, bike bells and warnings from other walkers and runners coming up behind you.
  • Watch out for uneven sidewalks, holes, rocks, or sticks which are tripping hazards.
  • Be careful walking around large bushes, parked cars, and other barriers that may block your view of traffic or other people.

Crossing Streets and Roads

crosswalk in a city

  • Cross at crosswalks or intersections. Jaywalking increases your risk of a serious accident.
  • Before you start to cross a street, make sure you have plenty of time to get across. Rushing increases your risk of falling.
  • Pay attention to the traffic signal. Cross only when you have the pedestrian crossing signal and look left, right, and left again before crossing.
  • Never assume a driver sees you crossing the street. Try to make eye contact with drivers as they approach.
  • Be careful when crossing wide roads. Look left, right, and left again before crossing.
  • Look across ALL lanes of a wide road you must cross and make sure each lane is clear before proceeding. Just because one driver stops, don’t presume drivers in other lanes will stop for you.

Bring Important Items

  • Carry your ID with emergency contact information and bring along a phone and a small amount of cash.
  • Bring water for drinking along your route.
  • Be seen to be safe. Wear brightly colored clothing during the day. (Although walking at night is not recommended for older adult walking clubs, if you find that your walk keeps you out past dusk, wear reflective materials or carry flashlights.)

Recruiting Walkers

To recruit walkers, promote the club via a variety of outlets. Once people have joined, organize the membership and set walking goals for the club.

Places to Recruit Walkers

You may already have a ready-made group of people who are interested in participating in a walking club. Here are other sources to consider when recruiting older adults for a walking club.

  • Senior Centers. Get permission from the center director to promote the walking club during the lunch hour.
  • Senior Villages. Place a notice in their newsletters.
  • Senior Exercise Classes. Ask to make an announcement before or after a class.
  • Libraries. Post a notice on bulletin boards.
  • Faith-based Organizations.
  • Book Clubs.
  • Sororities and Fraternities.

Promoting Your Club

Here are ways to promote your walking club.

  • Word of mouth.
  • Post flyers in libraries and other venues.
  • Post social media messages multiple times.
  • Send emails and/or make phone calls to family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Put notices in community newsletters and newspapers.
  • Post notices on the news boards of local public access channels.
  • Contact local radio and TV stations to gain access to their community outreach programs.
  • Use car magnets or traveling billboards with messages such as “Interested in Joining a Walking Club?” that display contact information.

Organizing the Membership

  • Identify people who could serve as walk leaders.
  • Assign one person or a team to keep the group informed about club news and information.
  • Develop a list with members’ email addresses, phone numbers, and emergency contact information.
  • With members’ permission, develop a listserv so that leaders and members can communicate with one another.
  • Consider using a social media platform or app to stay in regular contact with club members.
  • Determine who, if anyone, in your group does NOT use email and develop a system for phone communication with those people if needed.

Setting Goals

  • Setting realistic goals—such as walking up to 30 minutes several times during a week or a month—and having a plan to reach them may improve the chances of sustaining a walking club.
  • Ask members to do an assessment of their current level of physical activity. Members can share their logs with each other and then discuss walking goals for themselves and for the group.
  • Members may wish to set walking goals after seeing how many steps are recommended for daily physical activity.
  • Ask members if they have health issues that would affect walking.
  • Based on the different levels of physical activity and individual health issues, the group may decide to divide up into brisk walkers and casual strollers.
  • You may wish to start out with shorter, slower walks and then increase the distance and speed over time. Remember, the health benefits of walking are maximized when people engage in brisk walking.

On the Walk

Before A Walk

Before a walk, it is important for walkers to know the walking route and the time allotted for the walk. They should also check to make sure they have the necessary items with them and that they warm up.

Choose a walking route that is easily accessible by public transportation and/or provides adequate parking. For older adults who no longer drive, consider:

  • Carpooling.
  • Ride-hailing services.
  • Beginning and ending the walk near locations with good public transportation.
  • Utilizing other community transportation options for older residents.

Take a headcount before you start walking so you know how many people are taking part in the walk. Ask walkers to let you know if they choose to leave the group early. Members, and especially walk leaders, should have a list of everyone’s cell phone number in case someone needs to be contacted by phone during or after the walk.

Checklist of Items

Make sure walkers have everything they may need (PDF, 30K), including:

  • Shoes with flat, non-skid soles, good heel support, enough room for your toes, and a cushioned arch that’s not too high or too thick.
  • Socks to cushion and protect the feet and help keep them dry.
  • Clothes that feel comfortable during a walk.
  • An ID with emergency contact information, a mobile phone, and a small amount of cash.
  • A hat or visor for the sun, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
  • A hat and scarf to cover the head and ears when it’s cold outside.
  • Layers of clothing in cold weather that can be removed as a person warms up.
  • Waterproof clothing to avoid getting wet if it rains.
  • Step counters or other wearable devices to keep track of steps taken.
  • Water to drink before, during, and after the walk.

Instructions from the Walk Leader

Before the walk starts, the walk leader should make the following points.

  • Describe the walk route and its end point.
  • Indicate the time allotted for the walk.
  • Remind those wearing pedometers or other wearable devices to reset them so they can track their steps.
  • If necessary, divide the group into brisk walkers and casual strollers. Each sub-group may choose to have a walk leader, or not.
  • Indicate whether there will be time for breaks and where those will occur.
  • Remind walkers to be alert to their surroundings, even while chatting. They should look out for any uneven pavement, low hanging tree branches, debris on the ground or other items that might be unsafe. Ask them to alert the leader and other walkers if they come upon such obstacles.

Warm Up

Always include a warm up. You may warm up before your walk by walking more slowly for a few minutes before picking up the pace. If you choose to stretch, do it after you warm up.

Stretch Safely

older man stretching against a tree

  • Do each stretch slowly and move only as far as you feel comfortable.
  • Stretching may feel slightly uncomfortable; for example, a mild pulling feeling is normal.
  • Always remember to breathe normally while holding a stretch.
  • You are stretching too far if you feel sharp or stabbing pain, or joint pain while doing the stretch, or even the next day. Reduce the stretch so that it doesn’t hurt.
  • Never “bounce” into a stretch. Make slow, steady movements instead. Jerking into position can cause muscles to tighten, possibly causing injury.
  • Avoid “locking” your joints. Straighten your arms and legs when you stretch them, but don’t hold them tightly in a straight position. Your joints should always be slightly bent while stretching.

During a Walk

During the walk, encourage walkers to pay attention to proper form and to their surroundings. Some walkers may wish to keep track of their steps and increase their walk intensity. Consider ways to enhance the experience so that walkers stay engaged.

Enjoy the Surroundings

group of men walking

  • During the walk, take time to enjoy the surroundings.
  • Encourage walkers to be mindful of what’s going on around them. Notice the sky, the people, the sounds.
  • If possible, meet at different parks or reserves and enjoy the views while you walk.
  • Schedule breaks during the walk. If possible, plan breaks near benches or other places where it’s easy to sit down.
  • Consider stopping periodically to let the entire group reassemble and any stragglers catch up.
  • Vary your route. If you want to stick close to home and limit your walking to neighborhood streets, pick different routes so you don’t get tired of seeing the same sights.
  • Walk at various times of the day. The sights you see first thing in the morning are bound to be different from those of the afternoon.

Increase the Intensity

  • Those who can, should increase their speed to a brisk walk. Brisk walking means walking fast enough to raise your heart rate while still being able to speak and breathe easily. You may be puffing a little, but you shouldn’t be breathless. Those who are not able to walk briskly should walk at a slower pace.
  • Walk up hills.
  • Increase walking speed gradually by alternating between slower and faster-paced walking.
  • Walk quickly for a short period of time and then return to a slower pace.
  • Walk for longer periods of time.
  • Walk a longer distance.
  • Encourage walkers who want to, to wear a weighted vest or carry a weighted backpack.
  • Consider other types of walking such as Nordic walking (which uses walking poles) or power walking.

Enhance the Experience

  • Choose experts such as an arborist or nature guide to lead a walk. Have them give a short talk at the beginning and then provide commentary at points during the walk.
  • Depending on your route, invite an expert to help describe architectural and/or historical features along the way.
  • If budget allows, provide each walker with a wireless headset to hear the tour guide when walking further behind.
  • Make sure the guide stops periodically to let the entire group reassemble and any stragglers catch up.
  • Have group singalongs of well-known tunes during the walk.
  • Incorporate a scavenger hunt into a walk.
  • Incorporate “geocaching” into a walk. Geocaching is a kind of treasure hunt involving use of an app to find things in nature during walks. Free, downloadable apps and information online can help you get started.
  • Schedule a poetry walk during which walkers read and discuss the poetry on placards placed along the walking trail. A poetry walk can sometimes be done in partnership with Parks and Recreation Departments or libraries. Poetry walks may be of special interest to those who need frequent walk breaks.
  • Schedule an art walk where works of art are displayed for observation and discussion along the way. An art walk can sometimes be done in partnership with Parks and Recreation groups or with cultural arts organizations.
  • Take the group by bus or carpool to different parks and sightseeing venues to add variety.

After the Walk

After a walk, take time to cool down, check in with the group, and wrap things up with these activities. Count heads to make sure that all walkers are accounted for. If any walkers are missing, check with fellow walkers to find out if they left early or try contacting them by cell phone.

Cool Down

Cooling down at the end of your walk gives your muscles a chance to gradually return to rest. This is important to prevent injury.

Chart Progress

Encourage walkers to total up miles individually and as a group. For example, over time the group may have walked the equivalent of the distance between Boston and New York.

Debrief

group of men talking

  • Schedule a healthy breakfast or lunch or go for coffee after a walk to promote sociability.
  • Ask each walker to share with another walker what they got out of the walk.
  • Have a group share of a few walking experiences.
  • Announce the date and time for the next walk and ask who will be attending.

Get Home Safely

  • Arrange to end the walk where you started or at a location convenient for transportation.
  • Make sure that each walker has a way home. If someone is stranded, offer to assist, ask if any other walkers might take that person home, or offer to call a taxi or other transportation resource.

Keeping Walkers Engaged

It’s important to find ways to retain members once the walking club has been established. These tips may help.

Make It Convenient

  • Find times and days that work for the group. Be willing to alter the schedule when needed.
  • Locate walks near sources of public transportation and/or places with adequate parking.
  • Accommodate different fitness levels if necessary. For example, consider subdividing the group into brisk walkers and casual strollers, with each group having a walk leader.
  • Schedule breaks during the walk. If possible, plan breaks near benches or other places where it’s easy to sit down.
  • In summer, schedule outdoor walks early in the morning before it gets too hot. Look for shady routes.
  • During bad weather, schedule walks at an indoor facility like a senior center, a shopping mall, or community center.
  • Have music playing during indoor walks.
  • Schedule walks around other regularly scheduled classes, social activities, or exercise programs.

Make It Social

  • To create a sense of solidarity, create t-shirts with your club’s name and provide them to members to wear during walks.
  • If walking club t-shirts aren’t a possibility, designate a different color for each walk and ask members to wear t-shirts or tops in that color.
  • Have group singalongs of well-known tunes during the walk.
  • Encourage walkers to bring a friend.
  • Have a coffee hour after walks.
  • Occasionally schedule a healthy breakfast or lunch after walks.
  • Encourage the buddy system, especially for slower walkers.
  • Encourage carpooling to and from the walk site for companionship.
  • Schedule get togethers outside of the walks.
  • If walking in or around a library, start a book club that could meet after walks.

Make It Motivating

  • Have a walk leader (or leaders) for the club.
  • Encourage walkers to use apps and wearable devices to map distances walked and steps taken.
  • Encourage walkers to total up miles individually and as a group.
  • Issue challenges: most miles walked, most times participating, the newcomer, the person who’s been in the club the longest, etc.
  • Hold a yearly awards lunch or dinner and give out awards for those who meet or exceed the challenges.

Make It Interesting

group of women walking

  • Invite speakers on topics related to exercise, walking, and the outdoors. For example,
    • A fitness trainer or shoe expert could talk about the right sneakers and how to be fitted properly.
    • A person could speak about mosquito repellents and sunscreen.
    • An expert might describe architectural and/or historical features seen along the walk route.
    • An arborist or park ranger could provide commentary on the natural environment.
  • If budget allows, provide each walker with a wireless headset to hear the tour guide when walking further behind.
  • Make sure the guide stops periodically to let the entire group reassemble and any stragglers catch up.
  • Schedule an art walk where works of art are displayed for observation and discussion along the way. An art walk can sometimes be done in partnership with Parks and Recreation groups or with cultural arts organizations.
  • Schedule a poetry walk during which walkers read and discuss the poetry on placards placed along the walking trail. A poetry walk can sometimes be done in partnership with Parks and Recreation Departments or libraries. Poetry walks may be of special interest to those who need frequent walk breaks.
  • Hold a “geocaching” walk, a kind of scavenger hunt where walkers use GPS on their mobile devices to find specific objects in a park or other natural environments. Online information and free, downloadable apps are available to help you get started.

Resources

Here is a list of helpful resources for starting and sustaining a walking club.

America Walks! Walking Clubs and Groups – Case Studies

American Heart Association: Start or Join a Walking Club

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Create the Good: Start a Walking Group Toolkit

International Council on Active Aging: Walking Center

National Institute on Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH: Walking, A Step in the Right Direction.

Let’s Move in Libraries: Provides information about walking in and around libraries

Massachusetts Council on Aging: Walking Clubs

Mayo Clinic: Walking: Trim Your Waistline, Improve Your Health

Rails-To-Trails: www.traillink.com — Information about local walking routes and trails

US Surgeon General:

About this toolkit

This Walking Clubs Toolkit provides tips for those interested in starting and sustaining a walking club for older adults. The recommendations presented here were obtained from a variety of trusted sources at the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Surgeon General, and national and local partners with expertise in developing and conducting walking clubs. See a list of these resources.

The following groups provided input into the development of this toolkit.

This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.