Every week Gordon Dean dons his walking boots and strides out.
He meets a group of people and leads them on a walk at a chosen spot within the Bradford district.
“We walk all around the area – Cullingworth, Wilsden, Oxenhope, Cottingley, Bingley, all over,” says the 85-year-old, one of a number of volunteers who guide walks for Champions Show the Way, a successful initiative supported by Bradford District NHS Care Trust.
Walking for health is England’s largest network of health walk schemes, set up to help people across the country lead a more active lifestyle.
Across the country half of all adults are not sufficiently active to benefit their health, meaning they are at risk of developing serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
In Bradford, the 40-strong group meets regularly to walk distances ranging from15 minutes to an hour, over varied terrain. Across the Bradford district, around 20 walks are offered.
“I used to walk regularly, up to being about 40 and then I got out of the habit due to family and work commitments,” says Razia. “About five years ago I heard about the walking group at my local doctor’s surgery. I was reluctant to go, but then I found out I knew someone so I went along and enjoyed it,” he says.
Not being used to the exercise, Gordon struggled at first, even collapsing at the top of a hill on two occasions, but soon felt his fitness level improving. “I’m now much fitter,” he says.
Gordon went on to become a walk leader. “I lead medium walks of two to two and a half miles, occasionally more, hill walks and flat walks, and shorter walks for people who are not so well or recovering from illness.”
Those taking part benefit socially too, he says. “There is a really good sense of companionship within the group – we have all become good friends.” Occasionally, the group will travel further afield, to places like Malham and Embsay in the Yorkshire Dales.
Across the district there are around 25 regular walks and 267 champions. The programme began by offering exercise for older people.
“Initially it was known as Seniors Show the Way, aimed at people aged over 50, but then we changed it to Champions Show the Way, for anyone over 18, ” says programme leader Razia Islam. “There are short slow-paced walks, with lots of breaks, and others that are much longer. Some people want to start slowly and progress.”
People with long-term health conditions in particular, and those using rehabilitation services are encouraged to join the walks. “If people do not have this background we do not turn people away,” adds Razia, “We have others on the walk, including young mums.”
Small groups have two leaders, with three accompanying larger groups. “Some groups have around eight people, some about 30. We walk all over the district – Shipley, Bingley, and Baildon, which is popular. We have two walks in Ilkley and are setting up another.”
More urban walks in the city are also being established.
A special walk has been designed for the visually impaired. “We also have a number of history walks that have taken off,” adds Razia. “Some volunteers have lived in Bradford all their lives and know a lot about the history of the area. Leaders go through training, and plan the routes in advance, checking that the terrain is suitable.”
People attending have reported improvements in conditions such as arthritis, and for many the walks offer more than improvements in physical wellbeing.
“For some people it is the only human contact they have during the week,” says Razia. “The programme reduces isolation, increases socialisation and builds friendships. Groups often stay and have a coffee after the walk. Mental wellbeing is addressed too.”
People can self-refer into the programme, or services and organisations can refer people by filling out a short referral form.
Walks are not the only activity practised under Champions Show the Way.
Drawing and painting, craft sessions and singing groups are also led by volunteers. They can attend for as long as they like.
“The walks are very popular, people encourage others,” says volunteer Philip Lanfranchi, 71, who began as a participant and is now a walk leader.
“We vary the walks – St Ives, Chellow Dene, Doe Park in Denholme, Hirst Woods and Roberts’ Park in Saltaire. Everyone feels the benefit – even when there is snow on the ground, people turn up.”
*Champions Show the Way 01274 321911; firstname.lastname@example.org