Greater Shankill women from both sides of the community get fit together

A cross-community project in the Great Shankill area of Belfast is helping women get fit and form friendships. HELEN MCGURK finds out more

Monday, 18th November 2019, 7:12 am
Isobel Wylie

Isobel Wylie, a 73-year old from north Belfast buzzes with energy and a zest for life and her days of the week are mapped out by whatever exercise classes and social events she’s got planned.

Yet Isobel wasn’t always a gym bunny. A rehabilitation programme following a blood clot in 2010 led her to the National Lottery funded WISPA, Women in Sport & Physical Activity, which operates across Belfast. This chance introduction sparked an enduring love of exercise and new friendships which have supported her through retirement, cancer and losing her husband.

Developed by project manager Audrey Barr, WISPA is a cross-community women’s project which encourages, informs and empowers women to become more physically active.

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From its small beginnings in 1998 in the Greater Shankill area, WISPA has been offering women accessible, affordable opportunities to improve their health and well-being through activities like cycling, aerobics, dancercise and yoga. And by doing this, transforming the health of hundreds of women across Belfast.

Audrey explained: “In 2003 we secured our first major grant from the National Lottery which really helped us to evolve from a small voluntary community group to a Healthy Living Centre.

‘‘This support was so important as it allowed us to flourish and expand our reach across the Greater Shankill community. It also established us as one of the leading providers of physical activity for women in the area.

“Over the past 16 years I’ve been proud to be employed as the project manager and have watched the project go from strength to strength. I’ve met and worked with some very inspirational women and coaches and would like to think that WISPA played at least a small part in their lives and supported them to lead a healthier lifestyle and created changes in attitudes.”

Isobel’s story more than reflects this change in lifestyle as her passion for exercise came relatively late in life.

While she was always a keen gardener and spent much of her career as a neonatal nurse at the Royal Hospital on her feet, she admits that the word ‘gym’ wasn’t in her vocabulary.

However, a blood clot in 2010 resulted in her being placed on a programme of cardiac rehabilitation, regular exercise and taking part in a line dancing evening class at Boy’s Model in Belfast.

This led her to meet Brenda, now a close friend, who in turn introduced her to WISPA.

Isobel took to exercise like a duck to water and within a year had completed a ‘Couch to 5K’ programme and become an aerobics stalwart at the Spectrum Centre on Shankill Road where WISPA runs daily classes.

Retired since 2012, the WISPA classes not only keep Isobel active, they give her life structure. “I know what day of the week it is by what class I’m doing,” she explained. “Monday means aerobics and circuits, Wednesday is Body Pump at Girdwood and Thursday is Legs, Bums and Tums with WISPA in the morning and Pilates in the evening. And there’s running in between times too.”

WISPA has been part of Isobel’s life through ups and downs and has remained a constant throughout further health challenges and losing her husband.

“In the summer of 2014 that my sister had commented on my colour being bad and one morning I tried to run up Springmartin Hill and had to stop. I literally had no energy, so I walked home and went straight to the doctor,” she recalled.

Initial assessments revealed Isobel had low blood pressure and haemoglobin levels, further investigations discovered a tumour near her appendix.

She said: “It was October and when someone says to you, ‘you’ve got cancer’ you don’t believe it. I had to go into surgery one week before Christmas and when I came out, well, you’re just one big pain. The one thing I wanted to do was get fit again and that was my focus. I tried running and I knew I was slow, but I was doing it. I was terrified of bursting the inner stiches, so I was careful not to do too much.”

Then a few months later in March 2015, Isobel was dealt another blow when her husband Jimmy passed away.

“I thought he was unwell because of the painkillers he was taking but he just died in front of my eyes,” she recalled.

“Jimmy was my first love - we met when I was 16 and we lost touch when I moved to England for work.

‘‘When my first marriage ended, I moved back home to Belfast and a few months later we bumped into each other in town and picked up where we left off. We had another wonderful 15 years together.

“My friends from WISPA stayed in touch the whole time.

‘‘They sent me a plant and a card and checked in with me and it was great to know they were there.

‘‘My husband died in March and I was back in WISPA by Easter.”

When asked to contemplate life without the social outlet and structure that WISPA gives her, Isobel said: “If I wasn’t getting up and going out to classes, what would I be doing? Jigsaw Puzzles in the house? I enjoy the activity, the camaraderie, the fact that I’m up in the mornings and out the door.

‘‘ The instructors are fabulous, Kim in particular is great at explaining the benefits of different moves.”

When she’s not at WISPA, Isobel spends time with family and travels abroad at least once a year on guided tours. Her positivity is infectious: “I’m a great believer in talking to yourself and reminding yourself, it’s your life, so deal with it.

‘‘Life’s good and I feel mine is one big holiday.’’