Meet Alan Waddell, a spritely 93-year-old Sydneysider who is leading the fight against heart disease on foot. We can all make lifestyle changes to improve our heart health. And it's never too late to get started.
He's been called a ‘legend,' ‘Australia's Forrest Gump' and a ‘welcome dose of inspiration.' In fact, 93-year-old Alan Waddell has become quite the celebrity since deciding to undertake the extraordinary task of walking every street in Sydney's 641 suburbs five years ago following the sad death of his beloved wife of 60 years.
Since then Alan's been an ambassador for the Heart Foundation, appeared on national television, been interviewed on radio, and featured in stories published in Australia and overseas. He even has his own website, www.walkingsydneystreets.net, which has been visited by almost half-a-million people from 168 countries and is growing in popularity every week.
After meeting Alan, it's easy to see why people are drawn to him. He's got a great sense of humour, and is thoroughly engaging as he recounts some of the highlights of his walking tour so far. Like the time he walked Dangar Island on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, and was puzzled by the line-up of 20 to 30 wheelbarrows parked at the wharf. "You catch a ferry from Brooklyn to Dangar Island and you expect to see cars parked when you get there but there are no cars," he says. "At the wharf you'll see wheelbarrows. Residents and weekenders use the wheelbarrows to put their shopping in and things like that - it's fascinating."
Despite Alan's cult following, his remarkable walking mission is not about personal gain. It's about promoting the benefits of an active lifestyle at any age - a message he took on board after getting a wake-up call from the doctor about his own health. "I was told by my vascular surgeon that if I did not walk every day - in the wet, cold, heat or fine weather - I would be in a wheelchair. Well the wheelchair wasn't an option so I started to walk," says Alan. The retired accountant, who still saw some clients until recently, now walks for about 85 minutes a day, including a one-minute stop every 10 minutes in order to recover from a leg aneurysm. He's covered plenty of ground in his walking travels - 277 suburbs - which has put him in the good books with his cardiologist.
"Last time I saw my cardiac specialist, as far as he's concerned, I'm in great shape and could live until I'm 100," says Alan. "I encourage everyone to give walking a go for a fortnight, and they'll gradually get used to it and make it part of their lifestyle."
Alan's high profile has allowed him to spread the word on the merits of walking to a big audience and he's often asked to be a guest speaker at seniors' groups, schools and health organisations - a role he's happy to take up if it gives him the opportunity to give others a kick-start. "To give an example, I was recently invited to speak to a group who looks after people with diabetes and one lady came up to me and said, ‘You have inspired me. I do my best to walk every day and I know it will prolong my life.' If I've encouraged two people out of 20, I know I've done something," says Alan.
Along with his daily walking routine, Alan attributes his own good heart health to only having a "sip" of alcohol at weddings and not smoking. "I've never had a cigarette in my life and the doctors say this has helped keep me in the state I'm in at 93," he says. For Alan, who concedes he never really excelled at sport, the joy in what he's doing is as much about motivating others to make positive changes, just like he did, as it is about the journey of walking through Sydney's streets. "It's very nice to get over 500 emails from people around the world that say I've inspired them to give walking a go," says Alan.