At 73 years old, real estate agent Carolyn Francis has a knack for bringing people together and a love of walking. In 2003, she moved to Sarasota from Minneapolis, where she ran a matchmaking group called Adventure Seekers.

As she explored her new hometown, she wanted to make friends, so she started her own walking group.

“At first about two to three people would show up,” says Francis. “This was before social media days, and people would find out about things through word of mouth.” Now, Sarasota Walkers has more than 3,000 members on a website called Meetup, where people can sign up for various groups for free.

Thirty to 40 people now show up at a time, looking to make friends or get in some cardio.

Walking is good for your heart, as well as for circulation and mobility of the joints and muscles. Because it’s low-impact, it doesn’t cause the injuries that running can. It also positively affects the brain. A study by the University of Maryland showed that a single session of light exercise, like walking, increased activation in brain circuits associated with memory. A 2019 study by Jama Psychiatry found that walking for an hour a day can reduce the risk of major depression. Tracking your progress with a fitness watch or device also lowers your depression chances by 26 percent.

Plus, walking is cheap and accessible. All you need is a pair of decent shoes before you walk out your front door and get some fresh air. All these benefits have made walking one of the most popular fitness trends in 2021, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. In a survey of more than 75,000 people worldwide, the college found that outdoor activities like walking ranked No. 4 out of the top 20 trends, and group training ranked 17.

Sarasota Walkers hosts walks up to three times a week. Each walk is about three miles long and allows participants to go at their own pace. Francis says the group has a fast-walking crowd on Tuesday nights at Venice’s Esplanade and Jetty Walk, and a more social group over the Ringling Bridge on Thursday nights, but anyone can join at any pace. The group has met at the beach for evening walks followed by picnics. Each new member can join a special brunch meetup to get comfortable with members, Francis and the volunteer hosts of each walk.

“The best part about this group is that anyone can join,” says Francis. “Young or old, single or married, you don’t have to be a fitness junkie. You can be just starting out on your fitness journey, or if you’re injured or recovering from surgery, you can join, too.”
Throughout the pandemic, Francis has witnessed the benefits of walking with a group. Her daughter-in-law Patty brought Francis’ teenage grandkids by her house for evening walks and bonding time. And she sees other family members on her walks as well.

Despite Sarasota Walkers having to cancel formal walks during the height of Covid-19, Francis realized the regulars kept at it, and came back to the group with even more enthusiasm once people began to get together again.

“You get to walk outside, be a part of nature and catch up with your fellow walking members,” says Francis. “Couples have met through this group; people have become good friends. One person was even going through chemotherapy treatments, and we all pitched in to help her get to her appointments and brought her food.”

If you’re looking to hop on the walking trend, lace up your sneakers and join a walking group. Or join a Sarasota runner’s club. Click here to learn more.

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