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.

It's 9:30 on Wednesday morning and members of the Springfield Strollers gather for their weekly walk at the end of Sala Street.

The group of mostly retirees will walk for an hour before heading for coffee. Coordinator Barry Jenkins, 74, has been a regular walker for 15 years. He says the social aspect of the group is just as important as the exercise.

"It's quite a nice bunch of people, they're lovely. And it makes you feel better, physically and mentally."

Lake City Athletic Club president Rob Colledge agrees.


The ex-runner took up walking five years ago due to a heart condition. Today, the 69 year-old is proud to lead a 300-member club where people show up not just for training and events, but also at celebrations, funerals, in homes and hospital rooms.

"Every person in that group really cares about every other person in that group. We help each other out. Sometimes I have to stop and rest going up steep hills and when I do, the whole group stops. They might wait on top, but there are always one or two people who'll stay with me."

Rob says the members have become good friends and a reliable source of support.

"It's quite common if you're ill for some of the ladies to turn up with a pot of hot food or baking. You give away your life secrets when you're running with somebody, or walking."

He says the walking group has grown each year, and they're lucky to have the Redwoods at their back door.

"Over 30 years I've been running and walking in that forest, it's hard to keep me out of it."

Rotorua Tramping and Skiing Club member Trevor Cochrane says he started hiking at age 50 in order to walk the Milford Track with his daughter.

Springfield Strollers meet weekly in and around Rotorua. The 30 members agree the group's camaraderie is one of the best aspects. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
Springfield Strollers meet weekly in and around Rotorua. The 30 members agree the group's camaraderie is one of the best aspects. PHOTO/BEN FRASER

"I said to my wife, 'I want to get fit. I don't want to get burned off by 25-year-olds'."

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

Rotorua-based Green Prescription advisor Annie Hughes says many of her clients choose walking because it's free and that 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."


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 with a smile, removes his timing chip and grabs a banana and a drink. Outside the finish chute, he tells me he's done 10 or 12 such events and trains alone.

27-year-old Ashleigh Spencer, right, finishes the Tauranga half marathon last Sunday.
27-year-old Ashleigh Spencer, right, finishes the Tauranga half marathon last Sunday.

"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 is 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."

Glenys Searancke, 73, walks nearly every day.

The Rotorua Lakes Council member was part of the Springfield Strollers for 14 years, but these days strolls mostly with her English pointer, Wahine.

"I can get stressed in meetings. Walking is quiet, it's only myself and the dog and I can turn my brain off and think about what I want to think about."


The Nielsen survey of more than 14,000 New Zealanders shows walking occupies the number one sports and active recreation spot, with 29 per cent growth since 2010.

Rugby union is second, dipping 17 per 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.

". . . not so confined by time structures and having to be training every Tuesday, Thursday, 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 impact 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 engaging in individual pursuits like walking and cycling, but Gen Y and Gen Z (people born around 1980 through 2012).

"And the casualty is a lot of structured sports, traditional sports. Alot of historically strongly-subscribed sports such as rugby are being challenged because there doesn't seem to be the same particular emphasis as days gone by.

People are becoming passively involved with rugby and other sports i.e. watching on SKY instead."

Blake Cloke, 36, took walking to the extreme when she completed the Oxfam Trailwalker charity trek (which started and finished in Whakatane) earlier this month.

The regular runner says walking helped her recover from knee surgery.

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