Walking for Joy at UBC: Half a billion steps for health and community

Annual walking challenge boosts community wellbeing in honour of the late Dr. Joy Butler

Photo credit: Martin Dee/UBC Brand & Marketing
Photo credit: Martin Dee/UBC Brand & Marketing

In 2005, the late Dr. Joy Butler of UBC’s faculty of education created a fun walking challenge called the Walkabout to motivate her colleagues to stay active in winter.

By the time she passed away in 2019, Dr. Butler’s challenge had grown bigger than ever. Last year, participants collectively walked 466,419,312 steps over nine weeks. This year’s event will wrap up on April 17 with a closing ceremony where the winning team will be crowned and participants will receive prizes.

"Joy was very passionate about physical activity-she exercised every day up until the day she died," said Dr. Claire Robson, Dr. Butler’s widow and adjunct faculty at Simon Fraser University. "Her lifelong goal was to make physical education accessible and inclusive for everyone. She created the Walkabout to empower people of all backgrounds to live a healthy lifestyle."

Dr. Butler’s first Walkabout challenge was held within the faculty of education with 100 participants. Since then, the annual challenge has grown to include about 150 teams with more than 1,000 team members--10 times more than the first year.

Participants form teams and record their daily steps for nine weeks. Other forms of physical activity are accepted through a physical activity equivalence chart, which converts the minutes spent doing another activity-such as cycling, swimming, dancing, or moving a wheelchair-to steps.

Dr. Butler, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, led the Walkabout until she died in 2019. The event was later renamed Walk for Joy in her memory.

"One of Joy’s hopes was for the Walkabout to expand outside of the faculty of education to other parts of the university and beyond," said John Yamamoto, director of UBC’s teacher education office, who has helped to run the program since its inception. "For the past 18 years, we have worked hard with community members to grow the program."

For Alyssa Reyes, physical activity manager at UBC Recreation and a member of the program committee, the annual event is an opportunity to bring together teams and departments across the university.

"Walk for Joy not only helps build social connection, but it also fosters a healthy dose of competition," said Ms. Reyes. "Participants look forward to the program every year, with many teams returning year after year."

The event also encourages participants to donate to a different not-for-profit organization each year. In 2023, they donated about $3,000 to Abreast in a boat , a paddling group for women with breast cancer of which Dr. Butler was a member.

This year, participants are raising funds for Rainbow Bridge , a local charity that supports a family of seven who escaped persecution in Afghanistan. The family arrived in B.C. in late March and will need assistance with rent, food, trauma counselling, education and more.

Dr. Robson suggested the charity because she felt it would resonate with Dr. Butler’s values.

"The Walkabout is about empowering people to live healthy lifestyles, so raising money for people to live a better life in Canada," said Dr. Robson, "I think Joy would approve of that."