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Heart Foundation Walking: One step at a time, walking for heart health

Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve heart health and reduce the risk of long-term health conditions.

Research has demonstrated that physical activity can lower the risk of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes by 30 to 40 per cent. (1)

A study of more than 400,000 American adults who were followed for over eight years, found that of all the people who died during that time, 40 per cent fewer people who engaged in weekly aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities at guideline-recommended levels died compared with people who did not meet the physical activity guidelines. (2)


Australian preventive health strategies, such as the National Preventive Health Strategy 2021–2030 and the National Obesity Strategy 2022–2032, outline the need for physical activity initiatives to support more Australians to become active daily.


To support this, the Heart Foundation continues to take strides in providing population-based physical activity programs, including Australia’s largest free walking program. With evidence-based group and personal walking programs available, Heart Foundation Walking aims to help all people in Australia to walk more.


Heart Foundation senior advisor for physical activity, Elizabeth Calleja, said that walking continues to be something that empowers so many people – especially for those who may otherwise miss out on exercise and socialising with others.


“For some people, joining a Heart Foundation Walking group has been a genuinely life-saving decision and the beginning of their fitness journey,” Mrs Calleja said.

“We aim to support more people to live longer and healthier lives.”


Recognising the challenge of engaging the nation with physical activity, the Heart Foundation is eager to collaborate with more gyms and sports centres through their walking group program, which could be beneficial for engagement at these facilities, as well as providing access to physical activity for the wider Australian population.


Heart health is connected to both the body and mind


How does physical activity help the body?

Physical activity can help prevent and manage heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.3 Being active can also help to lower the risk of developing conditions that are associated with increased risk of heart disease, including type 2 diabetes, and potentially reduce the risk of some cancers.


Improving balance, coordination and bone strength through regular strength and balance exercise sessions can help prevent falls and fractures, and help maintain physical function, independence and activities of daily living, especially in older people.


How does physical activity help the mind?

Being active can help ease anxiety and depression, especially when done in natural environments like parks and gardens or in a group setting.


By participating in regular physical activity, people may find themselves feeling happier, more confident and sleeping better. Research has shown that participating in moderate-intensity exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes, three days per week, can have a positive effect on mood. (4)


Physical activity can also provide an opportunity for people to connect with others and build a sense of community; group exercise classes and team sports at gyms and sports centres are great examples of this.


Participating in regular group-based physical activity can improve a person’s health, wellbeing and self-confidence, and people may subsequently find themselves socialising more often with friends and family. Research shows that overcoming feelings of isolation and building a sense of community can be beneficial for heart health. (5)

Heart Foundation Walking

The Australian physical activity and exercise guidelines (6) recommend that people should achieve 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both per week to be sufficiently active and reduce the risk of heart disease and other long-term health conditions.


Despite knowing the many benefits of physical activity, people often struggle to maintain an active lifestyle, with only 15 per cent of Australian adults meeting the recommended guidelines for both cardiovascular and strength exercise. (7)

As indicated in the literature, this may be due to various factors, including lack of time, money, motivation, skill, confidence and enjoyment.8 Other more complex factors may include physical or emotional health problems, or simply that a person may not identify themselves as someone who exercises.


Established over 28 years ago, Heart Foundation Walking was developed as a group-based physical activity program to help increase physical activity levels in a free, accessible and inclusive way. The group format was specifically used to help increase peer connections, accountability, enjoyment, motivation, and safety, and encourage a sense of belonging.

“Walking got me off the couch and out of the house. I enjoy the people I meet every week and creating friendships. I like walking as it is a great stress reliever.”

- Heart Foundation Walking group member


The Heart Foundation is amongst the leading organisations across Australia that champion walking, as it is accessible, free and can be easily undertaken by much of the population who walk or wheel.


Heart Foundation Walking is Australia’s largest free walking program, with over 250,000 participants nationwide. In addition to walking groups, Heart Foundation Walking offers free six-week Personal Walking Plans for those who prefer walking alone at their own pace – anytime, anywhere.


Heart Foundation Walking groups are run by Host Organisations in all states and territories across the country, including metro, regional and remote locations. Host Organisations are organisations that are passionate and committed to keeping their community active and healthy - making gyms, fitness and sports centres ideal hosts.

Other examples of Host Organisations are local councils, medical centres, pharmacies, shopping centres and community groups. Becoming a Host Organisation is simple, free and comes with support from the Heart Foundation.


Hosting a Heart Foundation walking group at a gym or sports centre provides an opportunity for these facilities to meet potential new members who have been referred to the program by their GP, connect and deepen relationships with current members, and maintain relationships with members who have had to put their membership on hold given the recent cost-of-living crisis.


To build a greater sense of community and appeal to new walkers, some Host Organisations have established specialty walking groups, such as for parents with prams, menopausal women, over 50s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with specific health needs including cardiac rehabilitation, diabetes and cancer, and culturally specific groups.

“Hosting a walking group gives us a really personal and positive way to connect with our customers. What’s most heart-warming is providing a social environment for our customers to meet new people and seeing relationships flourish.”

- Host Organisation


The walking group program can be done anywhere and does not require indoor space or resources other than time. The Heart Foundation provides support to groups by providing promotional resources, webinars, educational information such as Heart Healthy recipes, incentives for group walkers, and insurance for the walk leader.


With more than 46,000 group walkers across the country, the 600 Host Organisations are an integral part of the program’s success and help to promote a healthier and more active Australia.


For more information on Heart Foundation Walking, or to join as a Host Organisation, visit the website by clicking the logo.


References

1. Department of Health and Social Care Physical activity guidelines: UK Chief Medical Officers’ report. 2020. www. gov.uk/government/publications/physical-activity-guidelines-uk-chief-medical-officers-report

2. Zhao M, Veeranki S, Magnussen C, Xi B. Recommended physical activity and all cause and cause specific mortality in US adults: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal J. 2020; 370: m2031 doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2031

3. Press V, Freestone I, George C. Physical activity: the evidence of benefit in the prevention of coronary heart disease. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. 2003; April 96(4):245–51, doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcg041

4. Sharma A, Madaa, V, & Petty F. Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry. 2006; 8(2), 106. doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

5. Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 2016; Jul 1;102(13):1009-16. doi.org/10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790

6. Department of Health and Aged Care Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians. Updated 2021. www.health.gov.au/topics/physical-activity-and-exercise/physical-activity-and-exercise-guidelines-for-all-australians

7. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Health Survey: First results. ABS, 2017-18, www.abs.gov.au/statistics/ health/health-conditions-and-risks/national-health-survey-first-results/latest-release

8. Hoare E, Stavreski B, Jennings GL, Kingwell BA. Exploring Motivation and Barriers to Physical Activity among Active and Inactive Australian Adults. Sports. 2017; 5(3):47. doi. org/10.3390/sports5030047




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