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Exploring the world from home with the World Walking app

In 2008, a small group of people with heart disease decided to keep active by going for a walk. They bought a map, some pedometers, worked out a route and set off on a virtual trip around the World. After seventeen weeks, they had accumulated the steps needed to complete the 30,000 mile trip back to their base in Greenock, Scotland. Duncan Galbraith, founder of the group, began World Walking.

World Walking is an app, launched in 2013, which allows any group or individual to keep track of their virtual walk on an online map. Users can choose from a number of iconic routes such as Route 66, the Great Wall of China and the Scottish North Coast 500. The app works as a pedometer to keep track of their progress, and provides them with photos and facts about the places they “travel through”. Walkers can even view their current position on the route via Google Street View.

Apps geared toward helping people improve their wellbeing have been on the rise for years, but with social distancing restrictions now in place for communities across the globe, the demand for accessible online health and fitness platforms has surged.
Many may be finding it difficult to find motivation in isolation. Though it has never felt more vital to stay on top of our mental and physical health, the community aspect of exercise is still key to staying engaged.

“Nobody ever imagined that in one fell swoop all of those usual ways of being would disappear,” says Galbraith. He emphasises the influence of having an online community for motivational support. Coming from a background working from the NHS and as a Cardiac Rehabilitator, he recognised the tedium his patients quickly began to feel when ordered to the treadmill.

“My job in the gym was to keep them active for an hour, and it’s quite boring telling people that don’t really want to be there that they should do 20 minutes on the treadmill and 15 minutes on the bike after that. It’s boring for them and it’s boring for me and I realised that it was probably the longest hour of their life, or at least their week. They would always stare at the clock, so I decided I would try and set them a challenge, and I invited them to go for a walk.”

The Inverclyde Globetrotters, as the original group was named, became a way for those patients to make their progress more tangible, and connect with others in a similar situation.

World Walking encourages social interaction, allowing walkers to form virtual clubs, chat and work together to reach their distance targets. David Rushton, Director at Papertank, the design studio behind the app, used Pusher Channels to build a live chat app, through which walking groups can suggest new walks and keep in touch with each other remotely:

As our user base and traffic grew, we moved from a simple JavaScript polling setup to using Pusher for a real time, socket-based approach. We use a PHP and Laravel backend, so we pulled in the “pusher/pusher-php-server” composer package and used Laravel’s built-in broadcasting functionality/Laravel Echo frontend package to easily push chat messages to web clients. The setup with Laravel was fairly straightforward and we were able to launch without any issues.”

World walking app notifications

Each day since the launch new users have joined. In the first few weeks of March 2020, as the global COVID-19 pandemic increased the restrictions on social interaction for many, World Walking saw their user base increase to over 50,500 active members who can choose from upwards of 44,500 routes. To date, the users have together logged over 27.3 billion steps.

The charity has partnered with major organizations and groups far and wide from their home in Inverclyde — from Hawaii to Canada to Australia — to create special routes for events and sponsored exercises. With the cancellation of the London and Edinburgh marathons this summer, Galbraith added the routes for the races to the selection on the app, though he doesn’t suggest attempting to tackle the distance in one go.

Currently in planning is a fundraiser partnership with a school district in Long Island who will be walking to raise funds to complete the building of a Rwandan school.

“In my head, when I think that a group of older adults in Scotland, who’ve had heart attacks and bypasses, have brought about a platform that children in America are using, who might ultimately help some people who are less well off than us in Africa. That just makes my heart sing.” says Galbraith.

They plan to add a fundraising feature to the app soon to support individuals and groups who want to opt in to using their milestones to raise money for charities.

The Inverclyde Globetrotters are still going. On their first trip they managed to reach Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics. Last year they had accumulated over 238,000 miles in steps – enough to reach the moon. It took them 11 years, 3 months and 10 days to do so, but they landed in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing.

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