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How to get a nation walking: reach, retention, participant characteristics and program implications of Heart Foundation Walking, a nationwide Australian community-based walking program

Ball, Kylie, Abbott, Gavin, Wilson, Michelle, Chisholm, Melanie, Sahlqvist, Shannon
The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity 2017 v.14 no.1 pp. 161
adults, chronic diseases, cross-sectional studies, databases, income, overweight, risk factors, social behavior, surveys, walking, Australia
BACKGROUND: Community-based walking programs represent a low-cost, accessible approach to increasing physical activity among inactive adults. However, recruiting participants from vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups remains a challenge. This study examined the reach, retention, sociodemographic and health characteristics, physical activity levels and motivators of participants in Heart Foundation Walking, a nationwide Australian community-based walking program. METHODS: Descriptive cross-sectional analyses were undertaken with data from 22,416 participants aged 15+ years in the Heart Foundation Walking registration database in December 2015, and from four surveys of participants in 2010 (n = 2400), 2011 (n = 3274), 2012 (n = 4158) and 2015 (n = 1890). RESULTS: Heart Foundation Walking reached participants in every geographic region of Australia, including remote and sparsely populated regions, and engaged sizeable proportions of the following at-risk participants: older than 60 years (>70%); with very low incomes (17–25%); who were overweight or obese (around 60%); and with one or more chronic disease or disease risk factors (57–81%). For all demographic groups, one-year retention rates were at least 75%. Seventy percent of participants met physical activity recommendations. Over 75% reported joining the program for health and fitness reasons while the most cited motivator for continuing was the social aspect (57–73%). CONCLUSIONS: Volunteer-run, group-based walking programs can have substantial reach and retention, in particular among those at risk for physical inactivity. The provision of opportunities for social interaction appears to be a key program element in promoting long-term participation, including among high-risk groups.