Walking: Group gets Sheffield walking back to happiness

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If ever a city was built for walkers, it is Sheffield. A wide choice of beautiful parks, woodlands and green spaces give plenty of opportunity to enjoy walking. So it is no surprise that the longest continuously running Health Walks scheme in the country is based here.

It is run by Step out Sheffield and with 130 qualified volunteer walk leaders providing walks at 24 different city locations every week, the numbers are impressive.

It is also getting an upgrade. Health Walks will become Ramblers Wellbeing Walks and Sheffield’s are the biggest volunteer-led scheme in the country.

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The short weekly walks can help establish a regular exercise habit, improve social skills and promote wellbeing. The group’s chair is 70-year-old Sue Lee, also a volunteer walk leader.

Walkers chat in Abbeyfield Park, PitsmoorWalkers chat in Abbeyfield Park, Pitsmoor
Walkers chat in Abbeyfield Park, Pitsmoor

Brought up on a farm in Burton-on-Trent, she always loved the outdoors and her move to Sheffield was welcome. Sue, of Woodseats, was delighted to get work as a ranger for Sheffield Council’s Parks and Countryside department for nine years before retiring. “The project was to deliver health walks in the south west of Sheffield. It was the most marvellous job in the world.”

The city got involved with Walking For Health in 1999 as a pilot study after it was started by an Oxford GP. The initiative was funded by the British Heart Foundation, then Natural England and finally the Ramblers Association.

It covers anything from an Arctic expedition to park walks. The aim is the same. “It is about putting one foot in front of the other, getting out in the fresh air,” says Sue.

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This can be in your local area and lead you to places you never knew were there.

Walkers brave the snow and cold in HackenthorpeWalkers brave the snow and cold in Hackenthorpe
Walkers brave the snow and cold in Hackenthorpe

Many have discovered walking is good for physical and mental wellbeing. The group’s walks are over easy ground, so ideal if you’ve never walked before. They’re also a great way to meet new people.

“Even a small amount of walking will give your health and wellbeing a significant boost if you are currently not active,” says Sue.

“Our target audience is people with health conditions and older people.” Sadly, lockdown in March 2020 hit this group hard. “We were told to suspend the walks and this was quite frustrating,” says Sue.

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"We were allowed out for an hour for the first 12 weeks and what I witnessed was a lot of people - neighbours who were pavement walking in their local areas. As restrictions eased, we supported people who wanted to walk but couldn’t because they lived alone or didn’t have a group to walk safely with.

The Dore group enjoy the lovely views over DerbyshireThe Dore group enjoy the lovely views over Derbyshire
The Dore group enjoy the lovely views over Derbyshire

"We supported them online with how to walk safely and as things opened up it was obvious people wanted to get back to walking. We found people turning up at our venues at the meeting times and doing a walk. There were 24 people just doing their thing at Graves Park – it wasn’t organised, just something they did and it was lovely to see people walking confidently and finding other people to walk with.

"The social connection is key and we had three people say they were happy doing what they did and they didn’t need to come back to us. That was great as they had progressed and were able to do it on their own.”

The obvious benefits are physical and mental. But the key for Sue is social inclusion. “For some people it was the only time they got out to meet people socially. They were devastated in lockdown, the walks were what they missed most.”

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She knows what it is like to be alone. Her husband Richard of cancer died four years ago. “I’m still coming to terms with being on my own. The first lockdown, I didn’t want to walk on my own, it had no appeal. If people joined us because they felt vulnerable and alone that wasn’t going to change in lockdown, so the socially isolated became even more so.”

Stocksbridge walkers enjoying refreshments al fresco in Lower Bradfield at the end of walk near Dam Flask reservoirStocksbridge walkers enjoying refreshments al fresco in Lower Bradfield at the end of walk near Dam Flask reservoir
Stocksbridge walkers enjoying refreshments al fresco in Lower Bradfield at the end of walk near Dam Flask reservoir

Richard saw the benefits after surgery, joining the health walks and training as a leader. It affirmed Sue’s lifelong passion for walking. "Since I retired, I’ve worked more! It has helped me work through the grieving process.

"There are a lot of people who have lost partners and so are in a better position to help.”

They do help. Just ask medical students Zahra Ahmed, Harriet Beattie, Gwen Craddock and Luke Jones who joined the group to make a video showcasing the walks and research how people benefited.

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Their research covered enthusiasts across the city and makes moving reading. One walker from the Bramall Lane group who said that getting out for his weekly ‘walk and talk’ gave him ‘a purpose to get up in the morning and get out in the fresh air’.

Members of the Bramall Lane group added the benefits were social – meeting new people, making new friends and helps bringing people out of their shell. They enjoyed a sense of comradery and it was ‘a great chance to discuss the weekend’s Sheffield United game with fellow fans’.

The theme of bereavement was also mentioned as the group helped one man to get out of the house and talk to others about the very recent death of his wife of 47 years.

In the walled garden at Hillsborough ParkIn the walled garden at Hillsborough Park
In the walled garden at Hillsborough Park

In Totley, a woman said her walk was ‘the only time in the week I get to meet other people socially and that means a lot’. A group of walkers from the area told the students: “We enjoy walking for pleasure and it has not only helped our physical health and mental health but also helps to beat loneliness.”

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Some walkers in this area met up and walked together during lockdown, others made friends and go out for coffee together while some do not get involved with anything else outside the walk.

It is clear the walks are valued by the members who attend. Some people have made lifelong friendships and enjoy the additional social activities they do with friends they have made through these walks.

In Hackenthorpe, a walker said that joining her local walk was the best thing she ever did when she came to live in Sheffield after she retired. Through the walk she got to know her local area and was able to make friends with people who all lived nearby.

Over in Stannington, walkers meet for Christmas lunch with the Hillsborough walking group, go to museums, it has helped members lose weight, is good to keep busy post retirement, gives a sense of purpose and helps keep busy.

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The Pitsmoor group highlighted good companionship – saying it was better than being on your own - help with social integration, meeting people from all different walks of life and helping with mental health.

They added the walks were good for people with mobility issues who can come with mobility scooter on shorter walk or just for socialising afterwards. One said: “Great to have both short and long walk now. I have made lots of new friends and look forward to conversations and chats that we have. I also enjoy the social events and tea and coffee after the walk too.”

In Graves Park, members said the group was a safe way to socialise, offering fresh air and exercise. One woman whose husband died 10 years ago ‘found solace with the walk and friends whom she meets with outside of the organised walks. Step Out was the catalyst to moving forward post bereavement.”

The Dore group appreciated meeting new people and making new friends. They highlighted the slow versus fast route as ideal for husband and wife who could come together but go at own pace on the different routes.

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It meant they got required amount of exercise per week – 150 minutes moderate or 75 vigorous according to the NHS – and again bereavement was mentioned. “It led me to moving to Sheffield to live with my son and his family.

"It was daunting moving to a new city and knowing nobody aged over 70. Step Out has facilitated integration into the community and formation of friendships that make Sheffield a less lonely place.”

The walks are as much about reducing social isolation and improving mental health as they are about getting fit. Wellbeing through inclusion is another important theme. Indeed, to encourage social inclusion, walks generally end with the opportunity to socialise over a cup of tea.

This has helped people who relocated to Sheffield at the start of lockdown. They made contact with because they had done the same elsewhere.

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They also help people rehabilitate after surgery, says Sue. "One guy had a hip replacement, he enjoyed the walks so much he trained as a volunteer. Then he had the other hip done and was back within 12 weeks walking again.”

She adds this was all made possible because of the earlier work done on walking groups in the city. "Sheffield has built up a really good scheme, a lot of which was developed in the 2000s so the groundwork was already there.

"When I was part of the council I was determined to make it the best because we were Sheffield – the greenest city with the best parks and countryside. We have Ecclesall Woods within our boundaries. the only thing we don’t have is flat walks!

"The statistics are impressive – the 130 leaders are amazing, many have been in the role for 20 years and were retired when they took it on.”

Step Out Sheffield has launched a new website with interactive maps. Visit https://www.stepoutsheffield.co.uk to find out more, email [email protected] or call the helpline 07505639524.

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