When it comes to sport, putting one foot in front of the other is tops, according to a new survey. A Nielsen report shows walking is the number-one recreational activity in New Zealand. Are we a nation of isolated exercisers? 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken finds walking in the Bay of Plenty is as solitary - or as social - as we make it.

In the club

Ian and Jan Farquhar descend a flight of wooden stairs on Mauao, near Pilot Bay. They're wrapping up a trek that took them over the Mount's North Face.

Walking is an activity these 70-somethings do at least twice a week with their group, Mount Maunganui Joggers and Walkers.

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The group meets Tuesday and Friday mornings at the May Street Scout Hall. It's early on a recent Friday when a line of men and women in blue shirts stream in and out of the club. "Nice to see you," Jan sings out to a fellow walker.

She motions to the group. "As you can see, it's all the contact. Like-minded people, they want to keep fit and happy. You get chatting and before you know it you're back again, and you've been gone an hour-and-a-half."

Ian and Jan Farquhar spend Tuesday and Friday mornings with the Mount Joggers & Walkers club. The couple, in their 70s, regularly summit the Mount and have walked a half marathon. Photo/George Novak
Ian and Jan Farquhar spend Tuesday and Friday mornings with the Mount Joggers & Walkers club. The couple, in their 70s, regularly summit the Mount and have walked a half marathon. Photo/George Novak

The Farquhars joined the group 15 years ago after retiring to the Bay from Hamilton. Back then, they say 10 or 12 walkers joined them. Today, Mount Joggers and Walkers includes 250 members, 95 of whom are walkers. Ian says the club got him moving again after decades without sport. It also helped him slot into a new town. "You've got to join something to meet people, and walking seemed a good thing."

Members meet for coffee after the walk, travel together for weekends and day trips, walk half-marathons and volunteer to stage a half-marathon each Queen's Birthday Weekend. Some stick to relatively flat terrain, while others, like Ian, who's 74 and Jan, aged 72, summit the Mount at least once a week. "Who would've thought you'd still be able to climb the Mount at this time in your life?" Jan says.

Club members show up for each other - at celebrations and funerals, in homes and hospital rooms. One woman who asked not to be named says walking with friends helped pull her through depression. "Isolation makes it worse. It was a case of getting exercise instead of sitting at home, contemplating..."

Another Mount Walker, 69-year-old Celia Stevenson, says she started running around 25 years ago, after someone told her she was a workaholic. She switched to walking in 2009. She also cycles. "Most of my time is spent outside walking or tramping. I don't do enough housework, I know that."

Other local groups include City on its Feet, U3A, and Green Prescription, a government initiative run through Sport BOP where GPs refer patients with issues such as diabetes and heart conditions to an advisor who suggests low-impact activities.

Green Prescription advisor Annie Hughes says many of her clients choose walking because it's free, and groups are especially helpful to people living alone.

The socialisation side is quite appealing. With our walking groups, they all form lovely relationships and get on really well.

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An Active NZ survey in 2014 showed Bay of Plenty had the highest participation levels in natural settings of all regions. The report showed walking was the most popular activity, with 71 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men walking. Sport BOP's Melanie Short says we can still do better.

"We know in the Bay of Plenty 42per cent of men and 49per cent of women are not active enough to maintain a healthy quality of life. So we want to encourage more people to get out...and walking is a great exercise or activity to start with."

Solo March
On a recent Sunday morning, runners and walkers enter the finish chute at the Tauranga Half Marathon. Event organisers estimate 30 per cent of participants walked most of the event. Ashleigh Spencer completes 21 kilometres, hugging another participant as she crosses the finish line.

"I just met that lady in the last k." The 27-year-old lawyer says running 'kills her,' but she enjoys training on her own and considers walking her main sport.

"It's such a mental challenge and you're just relying on yourself. I love team sports as well, but I just prefer walking by myself."

76-year-old Alan Foster finishes the half with a smile, removes his timing chip, and grabs a banana and a drink. Outside the finish chute, tells me he's done 10 or 12 such events and trains alone.

"I just go for a walk once a week. I used to play badminton, cricket, all sorts of things, but got past those, so walking's about all I can do." Alan finished the Rotorua half marathon last month and will walk the Waihi half next month. "Just do it," he offers. "Push yourself a bit."

69-year-old Celia Stevenson says she used to work 60 hours a week before she started running and walking. Today, she summits the mount twice a week and walks or cycles nearly every day. Photo/supplied
69-year-old Celia Stevenson says she used to work 60 hours a week before she started running and walking. Today, she summits the mount twice a week and walks or cycles nearly every day. Photo/supplied

Societal Shift

The Nielsen survey released earlier this month of more than 14,000 New Zealanders shows walking occupies the No1 sports and active recreation spot, with 29 per cent growth since 2010. Rugby Union is second, dipping 17per cent since 2010.

Camping/tramping came in third, increasing by 13 per cent. Cycling, going to the gym and running have all seen growth.

Bay of Plenty Polytechnic Sport and Recreation group leader Peter Sommers says the shift is closely aligned with our ageing population. "By about 2030, we're expecting 21 per cent of the population to be over 65, so it's not surprising to see activities such as walking on the increase." Pete says Kiwis also like the flexibility individual sports offer.

"...where we're not so confined by time structures and having to be at training every Tuesday, Thursday and games on Saturdays. We're moving towards activities that fit in with our schedules and family life."

Pete says rising obesity rates in New Zealand affect how future sport leaders train.
"I see change in our students. They're very socially conscious and want to make a difference. They want to get people out there fit and healthy."

Waikato University associate professor in sport and leisure studies Clive Pope says it's not just senior citizens taking up walking and cycling, but Gen Ys and Gen Zs (born from around 1980 through 2012), as well.

"And the casualty for that is a lot of structured sports, traditional sports. A lot of historically strongly-subscribed sports such as rugby are being challenged because there doesn't seem to be the same emphasis as days gone by. People are becoming passive with rugby and other sports, watching it on Sky instead."

Mount Joggers' Blake Cloke, 36, took walking to the extreme when she completed the Oxfam Trailwalker charity trek earlier this month. Walking is helping her recover from knee surgery. She also wanted to walk with her dad, who has completed 12 Trailwalkers.

"We had the worst weather, but it was a determination and a mental challenge to finish 100 kilometres to prove I could do it. I want to continue to enter events as a walker because I really enjoyed it."

Tauranga 14km walk, Ferguson Park. Judith Lunn (left) and Ashleigh Spencer, who says training alone gives her a mental break/ Photo/George Novak
Tauranga 14km walk, Ferguson Park. Judith Lunn (left) and Ashleigh Spencer, who says training alone gives her a mental break/ Photo/George Novak

TAURANGA AREA WALKING GROUPS