Quit and Get Fit in Winchester offered a weekly support group; with expert advice and medication to stop smoking, followed by an hour's walk through the beautiful Winchester countryside - lead by professional walk leader and Winchester City Council’s Active Lifestyles Officer, Vicky Jones, who also co-ordinates weekly health walks across the district.
The group comprised of quitters at various stages of giving up smoking - including a successful ex smoker, Trefor Farmer, who has transformed his life by giving up cigarettes (with help from Quit4Life) as well as losing weight and taking on a newly active lifestyle.
Other members of the group had recently quit, or were at the start of their smoke-free journey, and each offered peer support to one another in addition to their expert Quit4Life Adviser, Jane King.
When I first went along, in week 4, to meet the Winchester Quit and Get Fit group, I was struck by how supportive and considerate they were to one another. It was like walking into a room of people who had known each other for years. "The session at the start is a chance to discuss any concerns, and swap sufferings!" Said one member of the group. "The walk is a great time to chat and make new friends. Plus it gives you a good mood feeling. Walking with company means you don't feel negative."
Several of the group were struggling though with the early days of giving up smoking. "I feel like I've lost a friend" said one lady. Another member of the group quickly responded: "But remember it's not your friend. Something that will shorten your life and make you ill isn't a friend!" We smiled as we considered that the lady had actually gained a true new friend, in place of an old enemy.
As we walked along the bankside it felt like we were miles away from the madness of the M3 motorway, and that every member of the group were slowly taking steps in an entirely new direction. They may have walked that road before, but not smoke-free, and feeling entirely different. "I stopped walking along here a few years ago as I got so out of breath on the little hills" one member told me. I looked around to see where the hills were, and it was a real eye-opener to note the inclines that I had barely acknowledged. It really struck me how many of the group had improved so quickly, but that they still had a fair way to go in their uphill task of quitting smoking and achieving their previous levels of activity.
Quit4Life Adviser, Jane King, said: "As a Stop Smoking Adviser this kind of support post quit and during the first few weeks of a quit attempt proved to be really useful for the clients. They found that support from the Adviser and other quitters as well as the medication, enabled them to share their feelings, concerns, successes with fellow quitters that they could not get from a 1:1 session. They also found the health benefits of exercise and fresh air once a week."
We walked on towards the bottom of St Catherine's Hill. "We're aiming to get to the top in week 10" I'm told. Some of the group look a little nervous at this prospect, but we carry on walking and talking in the dappled sunshine alongside the gently flowing Itchen river.
Cut to week 10 when I next attend the group to see how they are getting on. I'm met with friendly hugs and smiling faces. The group are doing exceptionally well, and we set off at much greater speed than we did 6 weeks ago. The group are animatedly discussing the possibility of going up the hill, and what they will do when the course finishes. They agree to continue their weekly walk together, and they will take it in turns to lead. By now they know the pathways well, and the subject of stopping smoking is almost secondary to their discussion on their newly improved fitness. "We walked this way at the weekend and we did it in record time!" says one member. "I've purchased a FitBit" says another "and I'm so glad our group will continue to meet and support each other for our weekly walks."
I ask how they are feeling. "Much better" they all say! They start to tell me all about how their lives have changed since they gave up smoking. One lady tells me "I've really noticed a difference in my sleeping. I sleep like a baby now." Another tells me their surprise in how much money they have saved: "I put all my cigarette money into a separate account. I'm going to save for a holiday or another special treat."
They also discuss other quit tips: "I write my number of smoke-free hours on my hand. I started writing it on my fridge but the number got so high I was having to change it constantly! It really helps me when I feel the need for a cigarette." Some admit they still struggle some days, but that they will never go back to smoking now that they have come this far.
We wander on until we reach the rather daunting-looking steps to the top of St Catherine's Hill. The irony is not lost on the group, who reflect upon how they too were at the start of an uphill struggle just 10 weeks ago, but are now about to take on what was unthinkable less than 3 months ago. "Let's go!" Trefor says, as we take our first steps.
It's a steep climb, and we stop for breath at regular intervals. Our group help one another along, waiting for the others if they fall behind, and calling out encouragement for those who are out of breath.
Finally we all reach the top together.
It's a fantastic feeling, overlooking the patchwork countryside, and sharing the mix of relief and excitement that they have finally got to the top of the hill. One of our group said "20 years ago I attempted to climb this hill. I finally achieved it by attending this group. I feel healthier with the quit smoking support coupled with the walking session."
Another says "I have noticed a big difference with my breathing from the first walk to then finally achieving St Catherine's Hill. I would never have got there without the Quit and Get Fit group."
We stay on the top for a while, looking down across the vista whilst the group chats about where they will walk to next. We then slowly descend down the other side, nobody quite wanting the feeling of being at the top to end. But - as we make our way back to where we started - I notice that the feeling of exuberance stays with us. After all, the worst is now over. They've done it. It's all downhill from here for our successful Quit4Life quitters.
If you're interested in taking part in a free health walk, please contact Vicky Jones on 07980732124 or go to the link below to find your nearest health walk: https://www.walkingforhealth.org.uk/walkfinder/winchester-health-walks.
Feeling inspired to start your smoke-free future?
Phone: 0845 602 4663 or 01252 335120