Walking back to happiness: How low-impact football is helping tackle social isolation during Covid

Crystal Palace and Leyton Orient are dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of over-50s in their communities post-lockdown through the slow-paced game, writes Amarachi Orie.

Football fans famously sing ‘You’ll never walk alone’ — and that’s exactly the message from walking football clubs in the UK who are helping to tackle loneliness and social isolation among over-50s during the pandemic.

Walking football is a non-contact sport that can be played both indoors and outdoors by teams of five, six, or seven players who are not allowed to run or jog. This makes the risk of injury very low, but it encourages participants to get active and socialise, as well as being ideal rehabilitation for those recovering from mental or physical illness.

Initially aimed at older men, women and even younger players are also now discovering the benefits. Sue Sumners, 58, started playing walking football after missing social interaction following her retirement two and a half years ago. She not only made new friends as part of a team with Crystal Palace FC’s Palace for Life Foundation, but found the sport also improved her mental health, helping to combat her anxiety and low mood while going through the menopause. 

Sumners said: “When you play walking football, it’s like your mind switches off everything. Whether it be the kids, looking after your parents, money, or anything. You go for an hour and your mind is totally blank. It gives you a real break.

“That really meant a lot to me, having retired from work, that I could find a group of women that were like me: a bit competitive, who wanted a bit of fun, a bit of exercise, and enjoy football.

“The girls are great to be with and it really brings you back into a bit of society that you thought you’d left behind when you were younger.”

Although the rise of walking football was stopped in its tracks by the Coronavirus outbreak, Palace maintained their team spirit online through group chats and Zoom sessions.

Sumners added: “We’ve got a WhatsApp group and we messaged each other about football matches. Our captain set up Zoom meetings every Thursday so, instead of going to training, we talked online. It was good to see them and have a laugh. 

“Some weeks I found it difficult because I was finding my anxieties were coming back and it was like, ‘I don’t really want to face anybody today’. But when I did manage it, it was worth it. I’d come away feeling better.”

Like Sumners, Vanessa Jones gained more than she imagined from joining Leyton Orient Walking FC’s women’s over-40s team in September 2019. 

Jones thought it would just be a good way to keep healthy and that she’d get a kick out of playing the sport she had loved from school through to university. But she also found friendship and camaraderie and was encouraged to learn new Level One coaching skills, which she has used to help others throughout the Covid outbreak.

Jones said: “The beauty of walking football is that it’s played at a gentler pace and it’s non-contact so it’s more inclusive. 

“In lockdown, I took Zoom sessions which incorporated gentle fitness with ball control practice. Hopefully, this has been a help and kept the ladies in touch with each other.

“I definitely think it’s a good sport for older women who would like to venture into team sport and everything that comes with being in a team. Camaraderie, competition, learning new skills in a supportive setting, and pushing yourself physically.”

Having seen numbers halved from 20 players to 10 at Orient’s women’s sessions after the first lockdown, ‘soccercise’ coach Jones is intent on growing the game now restrictions have been lifted.

She said: “It has been great to see women who haven’t kicked a ball before play. We hope to see numbers increase again indoors. 

“We’ve played in a couple of tournaments organised by Tottenham Trust, so hope to enter a couple of teams again in future and plan for trips away. The main objective is to attract the women back who were playing before and carry on attracting new players with emphasis on having fun and keeping healthy.”

It’s not just time that was lost during the pandemic. Orient’s Trevor Ridley was saddened by the passing of a long-standing team-mate who tragically had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

He is proud of the way the men’s side rallied round as their friend’s condition deteriorated — and of the joy playing walking football brought to him.

Ridley said: “One of the first people to come along was a guy who had Alzheimer’s. He absolutely loved it. But his Alzheimer’s got worse and worse until towards the end of 2019, we had to pick him up [to take him to games]. 

“We looked after him and made sure he still came to football once a week. But with the Coronavirus that stopped and, unfortunately, he passed away back in August.

“Being aware of [his Alzheimer’s] meant that we were very aware of how we needed to take care of him. It was very sad that part of the way through a game he would forget which team he was on and kicked the ball in the wrong direction. 

“But what mattered was he was there, and we were looking after him, allowing him to kick the ball, which he absolutely loved doing. We just helped him do what he loved to do. It’s part of life, looking after somebody, and we were pleased to do that.”

Last year, a survey by the Walking Football Association (WFA) found that walking football was the highlight of the week for 70 per cent of players. Over a fifth of respondents felt the game helped them to make new friends and over 15 per cent said that it got them out the house.

The largest health benefit was an improvement in general fitness, said almost a third of respondents. This was followed by having more energy and improved mental health.

The game, first introduced in 2011 by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, now has over 60,000 registered players in England and is being played in approximately 55 countries around the world.

And Federation of International Walking Football Associations (FIWFA) chief executive Paul Carr can’t wait to raise the profile of the sport during the rescheduled Walking Football World Nations Cup next year, with 32 countries expected to be involved at the Academy Stadium in Manchester.

He said: “Everybody’s really looking forward to it. We’re all getting a bit older, and we’ve lost two years so, regretfully, some of the players who were scheduled to play last May may not actually be picked in the squad, which is a great shame.”

Despite the Covid disruption, the sport that’s merely a decade old continues to grow in popularity across the globe — and Carr revealed young people are even giving it a shot. While coaching in Malaysia, he discovered schools were using walking football to help lower childhood obesity rates. 

Carr added: “We were involved in some of the three-generational matches. We had children playing with their parents and grandparents on the same pitch, which was fantastic. 

“It is, obviously, quite a unique sport in that sense, because I don’t think you’d find that in any other sports really, where three generations of the family are actually playing a game and enjoying it together as a competitive match.”

Orient Walking Football veteran Ridley is now urging clubs up and down the country to establish low-impact football teams. 

He added: “My personal view is that addressing health and social isolation issues has to be the most important thing for any club. Once you address those, then the team and competitive side of things will happen naturally. 

“We are more than a football team when you look at the social outreach that we do. Every football club should encourage walking football to address social isolation.”

Follow Amarachi Orie on Twitter @iamarachii

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