Social value of sport EXTENDS beyond physical health

Tracy Levy blogs about the work of EXTEND and how it highlights the social value of sport and recreation

In 1976 EXTEND Exercise stated that its mission was to “promote health, increase mobility and independence, improve strength, co-ordination and balance and to counteract loneliness and isolation”. Over the past 40 years evidence based exercise has developed but one thing that has remained constant is the need for valuable social experience where class participants make friends, are respected, made welcome and included.

EXTEND has achieved this by placing a high value on the social aspect of the classes. Fall prevention and rehabilitation exercises can be repetitive so that even the simplest exercise regimes can fall by the wayside. EXTEND makes the class experience fun and enjoyable as well as safe, appropriate and effective. All of our teachers have examples of how their classes have helped with mobility, independence, strength and functional movement and self esteem. One of the very positive benefits of exercising with friends is that they feel 'uplifted’ after the class — as one teacher said, “they have a good laugh with and at me as well as at themselves”.

In Edinburgh a new member told her teacher that “I came here after chronic fatigue syndrome and it is like I have pressed a switch which has turned me on again. After 4 years I feel I want to do things again. Before, even going for a walk was an effort now I really enjoy it and want to keep going”. Sometimes the EXTEND class is the only support class participants have when they are feeling down, under the weather or emotionally exhausted.

Our teachers are their “friends over the fence” who are able to offer ongoing, weekly, support. One lady said, “this is the only time I am asked how I am feeling”. Another class member was really pleased that she regained almost full range of movement in one of her shoulder after her doctor had dismissed her problem saying “there's nothing that can be done”.

One teacher explains “I have several class members who have moved into the area after losing their partner or to be close to their family. After the exercises we gather together for a cup of tea and a chat and after a while new friendship groups grow with members meeting for theatre visits, trips to National Trust properties and afternoon tea in all sorts of places. The class has provided a point of contact, given the new class members a new social group and chance to find friends in a supportive environment”.

In Hertfordshire, a teacher remarks that “the social value of our classes is hugely important and it is probably as important as the physical benefits. In all my classes there are some ladies who live alone, some who start off very quiet, some who come being, or having recently been widowed. To see them gradually get to know people and make friendships and plans to meet, and find out from others what other groups and outings and options are available to them is fantastic to watch.” This is echoed by a North London teacher where “three ladies now meet for lunch every week planning the venue and date at the end of the class. Another group meet up for coffee and chat and phone each other up, these are all people who live alone and had very little social contact before.

In Kent a teacher had a class participant who “suffered with OCD before coming and had lots of issues about going out, being with people, lack of confidence to name a few. She feels that EXTEND has changed her life, and that of her family as well. She can now meet people, join in with them, laugh with them, touch them, not be afraid of catching or of giving germs, her mobility, dexterity and confidence have improved and she feels that she is leading a 'normal' life now. She has suffered for years. I feel so touched that I have been able to channel EXTEND Exercise into her life and that of her family with results beyond comprehension.

In York, a teacher states that “one lady says the class is the highlight of her week and another class member takes on the responsibility of organising the Christmas party for us all. My longest running class has regular parties after the class for birthdays, Christmas or just stay behind for a cup of tea and cake. People share lifts to classes, exchange ideas and problems, books, videos and DVDs!

For many, the EXTEND class is ‘their time’. A class teacher in Wales tells stories that can be echoed in all of our classes across the country, “one participant cares for her husband with dementia and the hour she spends at class gives her time for herself where she can relax in a supportive environment and enjoy the movement music and being herself. At another class, a recently widowed lady was encouraged to come as she was struggling to adapt to being on her own. The group was very supportive and as her late husband was a musician I was sensitive with music choices and after a few weeks she told me that she was so pleased she joined as it helped her to enjoy herself and to laugh again.

Working with special needs groups is where the social value is of great importance. One teacher taught a lady who was “pleased to get out of her disabled environment as the class was the only place she as treated as a person”. In Essex one teacher describes that her disabled class participants were “once shy and cautious, but being in a mixed group has given them the confidence to socialise and mix with everyone in the group. Everyone is more understanding and accepting, it has broken down barriers on both sides and quite often you find them all going out for lunch and it is lovely to see how coming to this group has helped these members to feel ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ by everyone.

One teacher posted on Facebook “I just wanted to share a story with the EXTEND Community, even though I have now retired. A lady joined my class, struggling with physical health problems and confidence. She came to class for 8 years and enjoyed the cup of tea and chat at the end. She became friendly with two other ladies and they offered her lifts to class when her eyesight failed and public transport was problematic. I was aware she had very little social contact and few friends outside the class. Sadly, she died on New Year’s Day (2016) and several of us attended her funeral. We all witnessed her only daughter's tears when she realised her mother's EXTEND friends had come. EXTEND is so much more than just the exercise isn't it!

While most people focus on the physical benefits of exercise, as teachers who work with those who would otherwise spend their days alone, we know that the social benefits of exercise and the multiple benefits of EXTEND Exercise classes cannot be overestimated.

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