Peer-led support groups are proven to help people manage long-term conditions by reducing depression, building self-esteem and improving physical and mental health.

When 77 year old Mohammed Ijaz decided to set up a walking group to encourage others in his community to keep active and healthy, he didn’t realise what a big impact it would have. We ask him about his group and why he thinks this kind of informal support is so important for people with long-term conditions.

Tell us a bit about yourself...

I suffered a heart attack in 2002 when I was 67 and needed a major heart bypass. Afterwards, I discovered I was diabetic, which was a big shock as I’d always been fit and healthy before.

How did the self management programme (SMP) help you?

I attended the self management programme at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital a few years after my heart attack. It taught me the importance of target setting, and a lot about areas I hadn’t been so good at managing, like my diet.

I learnt the importance of controlling my blood sugar, checking blood pressure and blood sugar levels every morning, so I knew what to eat each day. The main benefit for me of the programme is that I’m still only on tablets, and haven’t had to go on to insulin.

How did the programme lead to you setting up the walking group?

When the SMP finished, I didn’t just want to sit at home so I thought I’d revive the regular walks I’d started taking with a fellow diabetic after my heart attack. As Chair of our local community centre, I knew a lot of people suffering from similar medical problems, but not getting the exercise they needed. I started contacting them, and eventually our group of two turned into 10-15.

I brought what I’d learnt on the SMP into the group. For example many of the walkers didn’t know how to control their cholesterol level but started taking my advice. GPs are often too busy to talk much about dietary requirements, ten minute appointments just aren’t enough.

How does the group work?

We meet every day and walk for 45 minutes in our local park. It’s a commitment. You have to start and finish at a certain time, and you have to walk whatever the weather! Even if people go on holiday, they try to keep their walking going.

We walk half a mile all together to warm up, and then at different paces depending on our fitness. We all gather at the end and spend 15 minutes chatting and laughing together.

What would you say is its main purpose?

Mainly we have fun and laugh a lot. It’s a release and we feel solidarity with each other. The group structure also helps keep exercise regular. That’s important. When people are working, they’re rarely sick, yet once they retire, their lives can go downhill as they have no structure. When you’ve had a bypass or if you’re a diabetic, the real killer is depression. But walking together you’re completely relaxed and you don’t feel depressed.

If someone doesn’t come, we visit them, check they’re okay and encourage them to come again. Some members say they wouldn’t be here today if they didn’t have the group.

Do you think your group has managed to help people that the NHS finds it harder to engage with?

Looking back to the SMP course, only one other person in the group of 20 was Asian, and he was much younger than me. I think I had more confidence to take part because of my professional background. Others my age in my community might feel less confident about going on a structured course, the walking group is more accessible to them.

We’re mainly older Asian men in the walking group, but a group of women often walk with us as well. And we’ve often had people join us from different walks of life. To me it’s not about background or nationality, it’s about who lives in the community at the time. I’m originally from Pakistan, others are from India, there are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims. We all walk together as friends.

What are your future plans?

We’re continuing to seek new members, and some younger people in their 50s are getting interested. I’d like to further develop the educational benefits of being in the group. For example, not many Asian people donate organs. And many are diabetic due to diet and lack of exercise. I’d like the group to help educate people about these things in a way they feel comfortable with.