Ex-US Marine is helping fight the ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in London | #students | #parents

Middlesex University. Image: Mirror Screen Grab
Submitted by Made at Uni

A Middlesex University project led by a former US Marine is providing ‘social exercise’ sessions to elderly and vulnerable members in Walthamstow, in London and across Greater London in a bid to fight back against what he describes as an “epidemic of loneliness”.

The ‘Walk and Talk For Your Life’ initiative which is also the subject of his academic research into reducing loneliness and depression, comes as part of a national campaign supported by Dame Katherine Grainger, highlighting how universities are supporting local communities recover from the pandemic.

Nick Bender is an MDX MSc Sport, Physical Activity and Exercise for Special Populations graduate, currently undertaking further research as part of his third master’s degree.

After his research revealed how group exercise alone didn’t reduce loneliness, he set out to find an approach that would.

Initially based at Priory Court Community Centre, Walk and Talk For Your Life uses an explicitly social element to exercise, with sessions featuring informal socialising, exercise such as a group walk, balance, and strengthening routines, and formal socialising in the form of discussion around a health topic.

The community project and ongoing research has taken on even greater importance during the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on mental health and social isolation. The 31-year-old had to adapt the programme with the group walk being changed to virtual walking challenges – using WhatsApp groups to walk together virtually, sometimes as far as long the West Coast of the US.

Nick also had to increase his sessions to eight per week to cope with growing interest in activities and socialising opportunities for older adults.

His research has found that social exercise programmes cut loneliness by 25 per cent and depression by over 30 per cent, among those already suffering from these conditions. The early data also shows that of those taking part in the Walk and Talk intervention group, 50 per cent felt their chronic condition had improved, and none whatsoever believed their condition had worsened.

The benefits to the university project seem to be extremely widespread, from an improved general sense of wellbeing to a 22 per cent increase from participants in fruit and vegetable consumption.

The Walk and Talk For Your Life programme is one of a number of projects being featured in this week’s Made at Uni Energising Places campaign led by Universities UK and British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS).

Speaking about his studies, and on how university projects can provide a platform to support vulnerable people and communities, Nick said: “Relationships are the most important aspect of our lives is.

The idea of implementing ‘social exercise’, where we could address two issues simultaneously came from my research, as I recognised that loneliness has been a problem way before Covid-19, although of course, the pandemic has made a lot of the existing issues worse.

“We know that socialising is extremely valuable to our health and wellbeing, some researchers say loneliness is more dangerous than obesity and akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s possible that gyms should be a community centre offering older people exercise and social interaction, to help mitigate these risks.

“I do believe there is a responsibility of universities to look after the community. Like so many societal issues, it’s important that we ‘walk the walk’, and ensure that projects on the ground are implemented.

“It’s not been easy to set classes up, but I felt it was essential to create a sense of community – a university priority should always be the community, and I’m pleased that projects like this one showcase how academic research can have a real impact on people’s lives.”

Dame Katherine Grainger added: “A lot of people know about the role universities play in developing some of our greatest Olympians and Paralympians but there is a real untold story about the work they do in their communities to improve the lives of people through sport and physical activity and Walk and Talk For Your Life is a great example of that.”

The Made at Uni Energising Places campaign is taking place between July 12-16th and includes the BUCS annual awards event which celebrates the positive effect of student sport and students who participate in the wider sporting sector in the UK.

Find out more about the Made at Uni Energising Places campaign here or follow @MadeAtUni on Twitter.

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