If you had asked a young Gary Syme what he had imagined for his retirement, he would not have pictured receiving a national award honouring his services to the respiratory community.

Cantabrian Gary Syme received the COPD award in 2023 Asthma and Respiratory Foundation’s Respiratory Achievers’ Awards for his service to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Gary was diagnosed with COPD himself five years ago and explains this marked a new chapter in his life: “It was a surprise diagnosis, although my father had experienced similar issues later in his life. My GP sent me along to the eight-week breathing programme run by the Canterbury Clinical Network (CCN) and that was what got me started on my journey.”

Having not been particularly physically active previously, the course opened Gary’s eyes to the benefits of exercise in managing his condition and getting more out of life. “COPD can make you very tired and exercise combats that tiredness. If you do nothing, it makes it so much worse physically and you can fall into a deep, dark hole mentally. But if you push through that malaise barrier, you feel so much better,” he says.

As well as working on his own fitness, Gary began to share the benefits of exercise by volunteering to run a community exercise group set up for people with COPD in the Christchurch suburb of Bishopdale.

“Initially it was five people in a small hall and then over COVID it was disbanded,” Gary recalls. “We got funding to restart it in 2020 and it began to grow.” The group now has 20 to 25 regular participants and is now self-sufficient after losing funding last year.

The group participants collectively nominated Gary for the COPD category of the Respiratory Achievers’ Awards, and they credit its ongoing success to his welcoming, friendly attitude and dedication to running varied, fun sessions. Gary says the group, in return, gives him a lot of enjoyment, as well as a something to keep him busy in his retirement. “It has become my passion. I’ve enjoyed researching how to make the group as beneficial as possible. It’s become a wellbeing group; we do brain games, hand exercises, yoga, anything that improves overall health.”

The group also attracts people who don’t have COPD but want to exercise in a non-judgemental space. “I want it to be open to everyone. I understand it can be hard to get moving, but it’s so rewarding when you see those people who are struggling, keep coming back.”

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