Ann Gilbert, director of fitness for Shapes Total Fitness for Women, leads a team of more than 350 fitness professionals. She is a presenter at many industry conferences and has received the IHRSA/ACE Trainer of the Year award. For the past 10 years, Gilbert has served as a faculty board member for the Fitness Academy, an internal educational resource for continuing education. She can be reached at annfitt@verizon.net.

People once thought of walking as an activity for wimps or the elderly, but the number of walking groups has grown tremendously, and most experts agree that more people in the United States walk for exercise than participate in any other fitness activity. Why not take a few simple steps and launch a walking group within your facility? Doing so can increase retention, revenue and referrals.

Members of all ages, shapes and fitness levels will join your club’s walking group, and there is little need to purchase specialized equipment. People who participate in small group training typically want to use the latest fitness equipment or try out popular new formats, but walking group members value the camaraderie and the sense of achievement that comes from crossing a finish line for the first time.

By forming a walking group, your club can educate members about how walking affects all five aspects of fitness: trimming fat, toning muscles, increasing cardiovascular strength, increasing cardiovascular endurance and improving flexibility. Although people often join a walking group specifically to address one of those issues (especially trimming fat and toning muscles), it is accountability to a group goal that will keep them coming back.

For that reason, the group’s coach should set a goal for its members, such as participation in a charity walk or a marathon, and have race registration packets available at that first meeting to promote the group’s purpose. This will help participants start to think beyond losing weight and focusing on the starting line or another goal. Once a coach finds each member’s inner athlete, problems with group retention are usually solved.

It’s best to have a meet-up place within the walls of the club. Whether rain or shine, heat or cold, group members can use your facility for training. They can walk on the treadmill during inclement weather and cross train in your free-weight area or in the group fitness studios.

Your coach can perform a basic health and fitness screening as an introduction to the walking group program. He or she should also put together a 12- to 18-week training program to get the members to the group goal. This should include planning miles, advising on technique, designing a cross training schedule and motivation tactics.

To launch the program within your facility, you should:

  • Design a logo
  • Standardize the programming
  • Decide on uniforms, hats or bags to support the training
  • Hire and train coaches to deliver the programming as written
  • Schedule groups that will train for local walks, charity events and traveling marathons to assure you attract members from all demographics and fitness levels
  • Increase the camaraderie by naming groups, such as Walk Off Weight, Taking It to the Road or Off to the Races
  • Require members to pay a one-time fee to train with the group from day one to race day
  • Standardize pricing and offer group trainings at the point of sale as a training option for all members

Getting to the finish line or achieving the group goal can be a rewarding time for both the coach and the members. Having designed a safe and effective training program and having made members feel comfortable in a group setting, the coach has helped to increase the fitness knowledge and self-esteem of each walker. And after seeing the value having a coach brings, members will show their appreciation by referring, renewing and purchasing one-on-one training.