Brian Sloan: Take a huge stride towards fitness with walking sports

Brian Sloan, Age Scotland chief executive
Brian Sloan, Age Scotland chief executive
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We grew up kicking balls in the street or throwing a ­netball in the primary school gym. As ­teenagers, weekends were often spent on the pitch, building team spirit with friends. Many continued that ­passion, letting off steam at Sunday league games.

But as we get older, playing sports often becomes a distant memory. A dodgy knee, a bad back – or just a lack of time and fear of getting back out there are enough to stop us from ­pursuing our youthful passions. It’s all too easy to swap those trainers and football boots for the life of an ­armchair fan.

Look at the figures and there’s a clear trend. The older we get, the more sedentary we become. While three-quarters of young adults are physically active, only around a ­quarter of over-75s meet physical activity guidelines, according to the Scottish Health Survey (2017). Older people are much more likely to have very low levels of activity, equivalent to less than half an hour of moderate exercise per week.

That’s a huge health problem and it takes a significant toll on physical and mental health. Of course, there’s no single simple answer to this. But one solution is making sports accessible, sociable and fun.

Each week across Scotland, ­thousands of older men and ­women are bucking this trend. Their days of slide tackles and box-to-box runs might be over, but that hasn’t stopped them rediscovering their passion for the beautiful game.

Walking Football fever has been spreading across the country, with clubs springing up in sports centres, community centres and at five-a-side pitches.Former professional footballers are playing alongside novices and those who haven’t touched a ball since school. Players from their 50s to well into their 80s are joining in, including many living with disabilities, dementia or other health issues.

The game first came to Scotland in 2012 and Age Scotland with support from Paths for All, SPFL Trust and the Scottish Association for Mental Health was instrumental in initiating its rapid growth. It’s got all the fun, excitement and camaraderie of the original game – with just one rule, no running allowed.

As I’ve found out myself, there’s still a strong competitive spirit. Slowing down the game certainly doesn’t mean you can take your eye off the ball.

It’s now gone from strength to strength, with more than 100 clubs and more than 2,500 people playing at least once a week. The first national tournament was held in 2015, with more teams taking part each year. Many groups organise their own friendly tournaments and festivals. Walking Football Scotland, a charity affiliated with Age Scotland, was set up in 2017.

But it’s not just football. More recently, Netball Scotland working in partnership with Age Scotland have jumped on board with slower versions of the game.

Women from one club in ­Aberdeen spoke about “catching the netball bug” again in later life. Once they got over the first hurdle and realised no one would laugh at them running on the court, they found it addictive, building up long-lasting friendships through the game. We often think about encouraging children to take up sports, but the other end of the age spectrum can be overlooked. Lecturing people about fitness and nagging them to get off the couch and into a gym rarely works. The secret is ­making sport enjoyable, sociable and inclusive for everyone.

Clubs aren’t just offering a chance to improve fitness levels, they’re ­helping to tackle the epidemic of loneliness among older people in Scotland. ­Getting active can have a hugely ­positive impact on people’s mental health and well-being.

I’ve met players of all ages and ­abilities, who talk about how much they look forward to the matches, as well as enjoying a chat and a cuppa afterwards.

Walking sports are now among the fastest growing in the country. We want to keep that momentum going. Why stop at football and netball? Our vision is that whatever sport you’ve been involved in, you should be able to continue playing throughout your life – or try something new.

We believe that with some minor development most sports such as rugby, table tennis, cricket, shinty and more could have a walking ­version. We’re keen to work with more sports governing bodies to help develop these games and encourage uptake.

Setting up a club doesn’t have to be costly. The infrastructure is already in place, with many sports facilities largely unused during weekdays when people are at school or work. It’s the perfect chance for retired ­people to make use of them. All they need is a little support and equipment – and enthusiastic players.

As well as relying on word of mouth, we’re also in discussions with local health services and other organisations to consider referral schemes to walking sports programmes. We hope to reach even more people, no matter their health, fitness level, or if they’ve ever played before.

It’s been inspiring to see Walking Football make such huge strides in the last seven years. With a little help, we want to see even more older people walking their way to better health.

Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.