With more than 400,000 attendances over 20 years, the UK’s largest volunteer-led walking scheme has clocked up well over half a million miles around the footpaths of the Outdoor City.
“We were one of the first schemes in the country when we started in 1999,” said Step Out Sheffield chair Sue Lee.
“And the number of people taking part shows that Sheffield is still leading the way.”
The free scheme sees around 500 people step out from 29 locations every week to improve their health and socialise, usually meeting up before and after at a local cafe, church or community building.
“The purpose of the scheme is to keep people socialised and active for as long as we possibly can,” said Sue, who’s been part of the programme since 2003.
One Handsworth walker has been attending for several years, for example, and although at the age of 96 can no longer manage the full hour walk, still strolls up to meet her walking friends for a cup of tea at the local scout hut most weeks, said Sue.
Participants might be retired, recovering from surgery or illness, or simply looking to socialise and get fitter, said Sue.
Step Out Sheffield celebrates its 20th birthday in May, with certificates ready to hand out to more than 60 walkers and walk leaders who’ve taken part for over ten years or have clocked up over 500 attendances - one man has attended over 1,500 walks, said Sue.
City council rangers launched the scheme in 1999 but ongoing funding cuts and the enthusiasm and skills of volunteers meant the walk programme has continued to grow across the city since becoming a volunteer-led scheme in 2016.
Over 160 volunteer walk leaders have been trained to lead the walk programme, which picked up a prestigious national Ramblers Association Innovation award in 2017.
The scheme offers short walks ranging from a few minutes to just over an hour, (on paths through parks, woodlands and green spaces wherever possible).
Many locations offer 2-3 walks at different paces, and all offer the option to turn back or rest if needed.
“By doing a little bit for a lot of people, and them doing a bit for themselves, we think you get a much bigger benefit to the population than putting a lot of resources into a small number of people,” said Sue Lee.
“Evidence shows that getting a lot of people to exercise more has a bigger effect to the health of the nation than focusing on elite sport or people who already exercise.”
Volunteer walk leader David Jones pointed out how much the volunteers got out of the scheme too.
“I love walking and know the footpaths around Totley like the back of my hand,” he said.
“I like the social aspect, it gets you out to enjoy the beautiful surroundings we have in Sheffield and have a chat, and it’s very satisfying to see how people progress, from only being able to walk a short distance to being able to keep going for two miles or more like we did today.”
He added that walking in a group gives confidence to many older people who’d be reluctant to start exploring footpaths through local woodland and countryside on their own.
Sheila Harris has been walk leading for 14 years. “I went to a walk after suddenly finding myself on my own, enjoyed it and started volunteering soon after. I needed something in my life after everything had fallen apart, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
New schemes include urban walks from Bramall Lane, north Sheffield walks using the Sheffield Wednesday community minibus and a popular lunchtime city centre workers walk led by the sustainable travel team from South Yorkshire Passenger Transport.
Sue remembers a conversation with a man who’d been walking for four years before he told her why.
“He said: “I think these walks have saved my life, because when my wife died I thought that was the end of me.
“Now I’ve got a social life and I’m beginning to live again.”
For more information on the scheme and how you can get involved visit www.healthwalksinsheffield.btck.co.uk
How a Nepal walk changed my life, see page 45
Five walks to try this week, see page 47