Organised walking groups are increasingly widespread in the UK and elsewhere and have been shown to have many benefits for participants. They tend to attract more women than men, but little is known about how and why walking groups ‘recruit’ women. This is of particular importance given observed inequalities in physical activity participation by gender, in favour of men. To explore women's participation in walking groups, we conducted ethnographic fieldwork (in May–August 2017) with women members of five different walking groups in deprived areas of north-east England. Participant observation and informal ‘go along’ interviewing were conducted on 25 group walks, and 20 semi-structured interviews were undertaken. Fieldnotes and interview transcripts were analysed thematically. This paper presents five portraits to show how the identified themes played out in women's lives. For many of the women, the act of moving and socialising together in outdoor environments was highly valued. We show how walking groups found a place within the lives of women, becoming spaces of sharing, healing and enjoyment and acting as a positive resource or “lifeline”, often around time-spaces of change (biographical disruptions). We contribute new understandings of how walking groups work by showing how women's reasons for participating were intimately intertwined with their life circumstances and relationships, thus furthering the ongoing theoretical shift from investigating health ‘behaviours’ to health ‘practices’. We conclude that walking groups work well for some people at particular times in their lives, especially (but not only) for older women and, more generally, that life transitions offer an opportunity for interventions to enhance health if they work within the lives of prospective participants.
Walking, including group walking, is increasingly promoted as part of strategies to encourage higher levels of physical activity (e.g. WHO, 2013; US Department of Health and Human Services, 2015; Department for Transport, 2016). In England, the Walking for Health scheme was set up in 2000 and works with local government, NHS trusts, and other organisations to run hundreds of walking groups across the country. It offers free, short walks led by trained walk leaders and is now one of the largest public health physical activity interventions in the UK, with 70,000 regular walkers in 2013 (Coleman et al., 2011; De Moor, 2013). In Australia, Heart Foundation Walking has set up walking groups attended by over 22,000 regular walkers (Ball et al., 2017). In comparison to most public health physical activity interventions, walking groups have been very successful, and systematic reviews have shown that they can increase physical activity (Kassavou et al., 2013) and improve the physical and mental health of participants, including reducing blood pressure, total cholesterol and depressive symptoms (Hanson and Jones, 2015). To help us understand the success of walking groups, we draw on a growing body of literature that has shown how conceptualising physical activity and mobility as social practices allows us to explore why and how they can be integrated into daily lives (Nettleton and Green, 2014; Guell et al., 2012; Wiltshire et al., 2018). Practices are understood as interrelated and “locally situated and composite” (Cohn, 2014:160) as they are enacted relationally, reproduced through interactions with other people and the material environment (Blue et al., 2016; Shove et al., 2012; Reckwitz, 2002). Walking can thus be considered an embodied and “socially constructed discursive activity” (Green, 2009: 23) embedded in sociomaterial contexts (Edensor, 2000; Carpenter, 2013).