Expert Q&A: Expert Q & A: What role can peers have in running and sustaining a physical activity program?

Tom Allen is a consumer/survivor who has made great strides to help his peers. After recognizing the difference physical activity made in his own life, he decided to form a group called PhACS – Physical Activity for Consumer/Survivors.

Q. Can you describe PhACS and its activities?

PhACS is for consumers/survivors and friends of consumer/survivors who want to be physically active; It is a walk/run group that meets four times a week. PhACS is also a chance to socialize- whether it is chatting while you walk or grabbing a coffee afterwards. We welcome people of all fitness levels and you are part of the group as soon as you participate. Some of the walk, walk/runners participate in large community 5k walk/run events and the group is very supportive of these goals. 

Every 6 to 8 weeks we hold a planning meeting to talk about physical activity and plan upcoming events. These meetings are also a great chance to socialize and to talk about broader survivor issues. Our groups always meet and take place in a community setting and we offer groups in both the East and West end of Toronto. Being out in the community is another great aspect of PhACS; many of the walkers and walk/runners have gotten to know some of the neighbours, as well as staff at the coffee shops.

Q. Describe how you helped to start PhACS.

Back in about 2001, I personally made some life changes and became physical active. I realized this is life changing stuff! Together with my friend Jim Ward, a marathon runner, I started running. I was so inspired by my friend, not only in his running achievements but his willingness to run with a beginner, take breaks and be accommodating. I decided to see if there were other people who would like to take part. I went to Parkdale Activity and Recreation Center (PARC) and asked around and indeed some people were interested. Employees of A-Way Express, a social purpose enterprise, were approached as well. We decided to meet in the east end on a Sunday morning and over time, the group began to grow. Early on PhACS became a part of Accent on Ability, a charitable organization with the goal of improving the quality of life for consumer/survivors in Toronto. Our values and philosophy were closely aligned and this collaboration has enabled PhACS to ally with a charitable organization.

Q. How does being a peer-led group make PhACS unique?

We are all coming from the same page. Many newcomers haven’t been physically active in a while and we try to motivate each other in that regard. Being a peer group means we understand some of the challenges each other faces. Not one person is in charge of the group; instead it is a shared responsibility. That said, friends of consumers are more than welcome to participate and we encourage it!

Q. How do you promote your walking group? Are you hoping to find more people to join?

We have promoted PhACS through the Consumer/Survivor bulletin, NOW magazine, flyers in local community centres, and by word of mouth. CAMH has also posted our flyers, which they generously helped to design and print in colour, in their facilities. Outreach can be a challenge. Attracting more walkers and walk/runners is always a hope.

Q. What are some of the challenges your group faces?

As just mentioned outreach is a challenge as multiple people are needed to consistently spread an ongoing awareness of PhACS. As PhACS has no paid positions, people do things out of their good will, which can be limited by personal time constraints. Another challenge PhACS faces is limited funds for race entry and healthy snacks.

Q. What keeps PhACS going? Who have been important allies for the development of PhACS?

A lot of good people and the spirit of PhACS keep it going. Everyone involved has a strong belief in the importance of being physically active and recognizes the amount of wellness it brings to our lives; it is such a huge part of recovery. We are also very supportive and take over for each other when needed.

Important allies have been PARC (who gave funds early on), the Reva Gerstein Legacy fund, Accent on Ability, A-way express, CAMH, as well as personal donors. A few years ago research was done on the benefits of physical activity on mental health and PhACS walkers and walk/runners were interviewed as part of the study. Interviewees were paid to participate which was great.

Q. How do you encourage participants to continue showing up every week?

The acceptance around the workouts, the camaraderie and support in itself does a lot to encourage people to come back. We look out for each other. If someone is not showing up for a couple of weeks, a phone call to say hello or connecting with people when seen in passing is a way to remind walkers and walk/runners that they are wanted and missed at the walks.

Q. Does your group provide opportunities for peer leadership?

Although we don’t formally call it that, people are welcome to contribute whenever! We have an individual who looks after finances, another who chairs and a minute taker at the bi-monthly meetings. There are individuals who lead the walks; roles evolve naturally and there is always room for that.

Q. How does the walking group impact participants? Can you share a success story with me?

The walking group can make a huge difference in participants’ lives. There are individuals who joined the group as very quiet and reserved people and they have become the leaders they wanted to be. We have seen the socially isolated go on to employment and/or an increasing involvement in the consumer/survivor community in Toronto. One individual was trying to make some life changes and the group helped to motivate them. This individual has gone on to do peer-training and then employment as a peer. PhACS cannot take credit for our participants’ successes but we believe that we have definitely made a difference along the way!

Q. What does the future hold for PhACS?

We’re always hoping the funds don’t dry up. If there were paid positions we would be able to expand more, but there is value in it being a voluntary group. Do we want to get bigger? We want to make a difference for sure.

For more information on PhACS, see their program listing in our directory: