The benefits of group exercise

Exercising with other people can be a great way to get active. Katherine Woods hears how it’s also helped Mary and Alan to discover new activities and make lasting friendships.

Group doing seated leg stretches

For Mary Pritchard, 70, exercising with other people has become a highlight of her week.

Mary, from Queen’s Park, London, joined a group exercise class in 2015 with her partner, Ray, after he found out he was at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

It was during a routine pulse check at a class that Mary was told to visit her GP to get her heart rhythm tested. She was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormal heart rhythm that increases the risk of a stroke.

“My mother had several strokes, and since being diagnosed with AF I feel even more determined to keep active to lower my risk,” Mary explains. “My AF means I get breathless, but it doesn’t stop me taking part in the Pimlico Healthy Hearts classes.”

Pimlico Healthy Hearts is run by Neil Lockyer, a Cardiac Exercise Specialist at Charing Cross Hospital in London; Neil also runs the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation exercise programme, where patients attend six to 12 weekly exercise and information sessions to help them get back to daily life after a heart diagnosis or event. “Cardiac rehab is great for reintroducing people to physical activity, but when the programme ends there’s a risk people drop back to doing less exercise and the benefits will be lost,” he explains.

So Neil started the Pimlico Healthy Hearts group, to help people to look after their heart health in the longer term. “It’s really valuable to have opportunities locally that allow people to continue exercising in their preferred way,” he says. “Most of our members have attended cardiac rehab, but anyone with an increased risk of heart and circulatory disease, and their friends and family, are welcome.”

At each class, Neil takes everyone’s pulse and tells people individually what heart rate to aim for when exercising. They then rotate around different activity circuits each week.

The group ranges in age from late 30s to mid-80s, and people exercise in pairs according to their ability. This helps Mary to stay motivated: “When I see my exercise partner working really hard I think to myself, maybe I could try a bit harder too.”

Woman doing an arm stretch at a group exercise class

Social support

Mary attends the class weekly and finds the support she gets from Neil and the other members keeps her coming back. “I have benefited from the classes in so many ways. My fitness and muscle strength have improved, but the social aspect is just as important. Neil has created such a friendly atmosphere. I’ve made some lovely friends. We organise social gatherings, which are great fun.”

Neil agrees that the strength of the social support within the group keeps it going: “It really has taken on a life of its own: people even go on holiday together. This social side really has proven to be a great driving force in keeping people active in the long term.”

For anyone feeling apprehensive about joining an exercise group, Mary’s advice is to go to your first session with a friend. She adds: “We’re very friendly to people coming for the first time because we know it can be daunting. Just remember, everyone is there for the same reason, and we all support each other.”

Pimlico Healthy Hearts is a BHF-affiliated Heart Support Group.

Man and woman carrying yoga and exercise equipment

Walking football after a heart attack

As an ex-Sergeant, Royal Marines Commando, exercise had always been an important part of life for Alan Lee. But before a heart attack in 2017, his weight had crept up.

Eight weeks after his heart attack, Alan, now 60, started cardiac rehab in Lincoln. “To begin with, it felt like my world had fallen apart, but the staff at Lincoln Cardiac Rehabilitation put me back together again; they were excellent.”

Alan was keen to stay active, but he needed to build up his exercise regime slowly. He had played football in his youth, but an injury meant he had to give it up. “My son suggested I try walking football, so I asked the cardiac rehab nurses and physio if it would be suitable, and they said yes.”

In walking football, players try to avoid physical contact and walk briskly instead of running. This means it’s classed as moderate exercise and is therefore suitable for people who are regaining their fitness after a heart event.

Alan started playing every week with a local team. “I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it! I loved being part of a team and the camaraderie that comes with it. It was great to see my breathing and stamina starting to improve too.”

Group of men playing walking football

A few months later, Alan became a volunteer at Lincoln Cardiac Rehabilitation, and started to tell patients about walking football.

As more people joined, Alan and two of his friends from the club – Derek Burton and Dave Willford – decided to start a new team with stricter playing rules, that was suitable for heart patients: in October 2018, Ruston Walking Football Club (known as ‘The Heart Attackers’ by its members) was formed. Alan is the club’s secretary and arranges for staff from Lincoln Cardiac Rehabilitation to visit the club to educate the players on health and wellbeing.

Since the club formed, Alan has recruited eight players through cardiac rehab, and together they have raised money for Lincoln Cardiac Rehabilitation to be the team’s shirt sponsor. “The players have become really good friends and games are always full of laughs. But it acts as a support group too: if anyone’s struggling with personal problems, we share them.”

Alan’s club is open to anyone over 50, regardless of whether they’ve had a heart event. There are now 40 members and Alan believes those without heart problems benefit from hearing what the heart patients have been through. “It makes people think twice about their own lives. It’s a bit of a kick up the backside.”

As the group’s co-founder, Alan is proud of what it’s achieved. “It benefits so many of us and everyone is so welcoming to the new players; it’s a real community.”

Getting started

Find classes for people with heart and circulatory conditions at (select ‘Phase 4 Programmes’), call our Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3311 or ask your cardiac rehab service.

More useful information