• Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

North East Connected

Hopping Across The North East From Hub To Hub

Walking rugby club plays its part in North-East public health trial


Feb 16, 2022 #rugby, #Sport, #Tyneside

A North-East pilot study is examining the benefits of taking a more community-led approach to public health. Among a host of grass roots organisations taking part is a walking rugby group. PETER BARRON reports…

A BITING February wind is blowing across the pristine artificial turf and 66-year-old Bill Shaw is braced to receive the ball, then pass and move.

He’s at Blaydon Rugby Club and it’s Thursday – Bill’s favourite day of the week. That’s because he gets to see his friends for a game of walking rugby, followed by a cuppa and a natter in the bar.

“It’s definitely the day I look forward to most,” he says. “I just wish it was more often.”

Bill goes on to explain that his health “isn’t too good”. Heart problems have left him on the waiting list for two new valves, and he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s.

Due to the need to isolate, he’s endured two lonely lockdown years, but at least for a precious few hours on Thursdays, he’s walking back to happiness.

A gentler form of the sport – more Blaydon paces than races – walking rugby is ideal for the older generation and those with medical conditions. Bill, pictured below, falls into both camps and has no doubt about the benefits to his physical and mental health.

“It’s made the world of difference – I’ve seen a massive improvement,” he declares over a coffee in the warmth of the rugby club bar, the flames of an artificial fire flickering by his side.

“The biggest thing is confidence to get moving again, and then to come in here and have a bit of crack is wonderful. Everyone makes you feel so welcome – I’m glad I decided to give it a go.”

Blaydon Rugby Club is one of a number of grass roots organisations involved in a North-East pilot study, led by a social enterprise called Sport Works, to assess the value of embedding health and wellbeing into community life.

The ‘Holistic Health’ study, focusing primarily on more vulnerable and disadvantaged people, was launched in January and runs for three months. The emphasis is on diversity, with all ages, males and females, and people from various ethnic groups represented.

The pilot has secured wide interest from bodies including Sport England, the Lawn Tennis Association, and Public Health England.

It covers from Tees Valley to Tyne and Wear and is being funded directly by Sport Works, with support from Durham County Council for the parts of the trial taking place in County Durham.

Independent researcher, Dr Christopher Hartworth, has been commissioned to provide robust data throughout the trial to assess whether there’s been long-term behavioural change.

According to Martyn Clark, Sport Works’ North-East Projects Co-ordinator, the study has got off to a flying start: “Everyone has really entered into the spirit of what we’re trying to achieve, and it’s already clear that the demand is there.

“Lots of people have been affected by isolation during the two years of the pandemic, so those taking part can see that the need for exercise and social interaction is more important than ever.”

Charley Miller, 19, is a community coach for Sport Works, and he’s in the thick of the trial at Blaydon Rugby Club, both on and off the pitch.

As well as taking part in the games, he’s also centre of attention back in the bar as he delivers key messages about mental health and nutrition.

“It’s been a hard time because of Covid, so they really enjoy socialising as well as the exercise,” says Charley, who is also studying for a degree in sport and exercise science at Newcastle University.

“A lot of them have really bought into the nutrition side, and have started keeping a food diary, so that they eat more healthily. Hopefully, this is just the start, and it leads to a more sustained approach.”

Blaydon Rugby Club’s involvement in the pilot study is down to Jim Coulson, a qualified coach and referee. During a lifetime in the sport, he’s seen how the camaraderie of rugby can play a positive part in mental health.

“As soon as I heard about the Sport Works trial, I applied to be part of it because I think it’s a really interesting project. What really appealed was combining the physical exercise with the social side and the chats about mental health and nutrition,” says Jim.

“When the walking rugby group started, we had people struggling with all kinds of medical conditions, who were moving quite slowly and falling over a lot.

“But by encouraging them to work in small groups, passing the ball, and walking, they’ve improved their movement, kicking, and hand-eye co-ordination.

“On top of all that, the social interaction has definitely improved their mental health. People comment all the time about how it’s made them happier, and how much they look forward to coming every week.”

The average age of the group is 67, and Jim is a fit-looking 76, belying the fact that he’s being treated for advanced prostate cancer.

“Health is important to everyone, so it will be great if we can see some independently validated results from this, and I’d love to see it spread wider and important lessons learned,” he adds.

That enthusiasm is echoed by 74-year-old George Groom, who played on the wing for Blaydon for 25 years and is a life member of the club.

George was one of the founders of the walking rugby group when it was formed nearly three years ago with the backing of the RFU and Age Concern.

“There were only three members  to start with but that’s grown to 25 regulars, with people coming from miles away and a variety of other clubs,” he says.

“We’ve got at least two guys with pacemakers, quite a few with knee and hip replacements, and all sorts of other things going on, but even if they can’t play, they still want to come for the chat. My wife says I come back a different person when I’ve been here.”.

Meanwhile, relaxing by the fire in the corner, Bill Shaw is still engrossed in conversation with a couple of new-found pals.

Coffee cup in hand, he’s smiling broadly…and, no doubt, already looking forward to next Thursday.

By admin