by Mark Christie, REPS L3 Advanced Instructor and Sports Lecturer, University of Cumbria
Mark Christie is a Sports Lecturer at the University of Cumbria, Sponsor Partners for The Big Draw Festival 2020. Here he explores the many extraordinary health benefits, both mental and physical, of connecting with nature and the outdoors! Have you reconnected with nature since the first Covid-19 lockdown?
Being in lockdown over the past many months has given us all a chance to reflect more deeply on our own personal circumstances and the things that matter most to us. It’s also been noticeable for the reduced levels of stress within our lives – for example, the daily commute to work. The upside to this, of course, has been the potential for a re-awakening of our connection with nature – indeed, nature itself has been noticed reclaiming lost ground, with many people citing more frequent encounters with hedgehogs, stoats, field mice, squirrels and munkjac deer. This response to nature – denoted as an affinity for nature, has for some people always been an important part of their lives, but for many others it has been somewhat suppressed by man-made influences that continue to encroach on our everyday existence – from the subtle pressure of social media to the fact we spent so much time of our lives indoors.
Living in close proximity to the Lake District and within the Yorkshire Dales National Park provides a perfect context for engaging in my favourite activities, and I have always utilised to maximum effect the local footpaths and parks on my doorstep. As a longstanding REPS member, I have consistently been a passionate advocate of green exercise - defined as different modes of physical exercise in the presence of nature (such as running, cycling, gardening, conservation work, horse riding, orienteering and hiking) and the associated label of ‘blue exercise’ (such as kayaking and wild swimming) (Pretty et al 2007).
My own client-based classes include outdoor boot camps, personal trainer (PT) sessions in parks or countryside, and a ‘walk and tone’ group.
Anecdotally, it has been clear to me that not only is the act of exercising of value to those participating in these varied physical activity pursuits, but also the utilisation of natural assets appears to be a major factor in the enjoyment of those involved. This enjoyment is manifested in the social ‘banter’ and camaraderie generated amongst the exercising groups, with comments often including how they feel uplifted not only by the activities per se, but by their surroundings and the sights and sounds that accompany these. These effects have been well documented in both quantitative and qualitative studies that show exercising in nature can have powerful impacts upon both physiological and psychological markers, including lowered blood pressure, stress reduction and improved mood states; and can even be as effective as consuming Prozac for some people; whilst even simply looking at, or being in nature in a more passive sense, can help to relax and declutter the mind, as posited by Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989), and facilitate restoration, so we are more resilient when we re-engage with sources of stress in our lives, such as workload, family responsibilities and study (Wood et al, 2016).
My interest in the power of nature – akin to a Natural Health Service – has extended to researching the benefits that accrue to people as part of a PhD by Published Works, where I have focused upon three specific green exercise modes: gardening, horticultural and conservation activities. Using interviews whilst people are actively engaged in green exercise, as well as use of photographs and reflective diaries - I have researched the experiences of varied groups of people. Initial insight into the mechanisms and processes underpinning health benefits can be provided with some participant responses from the research:
“Digging and stuff, getting the stress out of you, and you come back in and you have released all the stress.” (NHS Study participant)
“…whatever you do here, whether it be fruit picking or weeding or walling…at the end of the day you look and you can say, ‘yeah I did that’ and so it’s a nice thing to take home with me” (Woodlands Mental Health Study participant)
“It’s a natural thing. It’s like if I go away somewhere one day, somewhere nice, a nice environment, and it just makes you feel good…And coming into the park, it does the same thing. Being in a place with trees, plants, landscaping—It just makes you feel good” (Conservation-themed Greenfingers Project participant)
“[Gardening] gives you time to switch off, like you’ve got a lot on your mind and I can come here and it’s like you don’t think about it!” (Corporate Health participant)
However we categorise engagement with the natural world, researchers and proponents of such engagement cite the evidence that strongly associates such contact with positive contributions to health and wellbeing - as well as nature’s potential to inoculate against future stressful episodes, restore attention for the busy lives we lead in a fast-paced technologically driven world, and provide us with resilience, and the ability to effectively recover from pre-existing conditions and problems (Loureiro & Veloso, 2017). Green spaces have special properties that enable such outcomes to occur, at an emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological level, as opposed to urban life, where there can be a profound disconnect and separation of people from nature, which can be associated with higher stress levels and reduction in health status (Barton et al, 2009). Even interaction with plants indoors can prove helpful from a wellbeing perspective, although the dividends are considered to be much higher with more natural outdoor settings (Grinde and Patil, 2009).
Whatever we choose to promote as fitness instructors and personal trainers, getting people outdoors can clearly have a positive impact on our lives. My PT clients always far prefer working out in a park or countryside setting, and love the way sessions can be adapted. So, the message from the research and my own experiences is clear: outdoors is a powerful antidote to the confines of our urban existence, our fast-paced almost frantic lives, and is a natural thing to do – it’s an innate calling.
Mark’s research can be found here:
Christie, M. Hulse, L. & Miller, P.K. (2020). Time For a (Gardening) Break: Impacts Of a Green Exercise Initiative For Staff Health And Wellbeing in a Corporate Environment. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 30 (1), 1-24. American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA).
Christie, M., Cole, F. & Miller, P.K. (2020). A Piloted Think Aloud Method Within an Investigation of the Impacts of a Therapeutic Green Exercise Project for People Recovering from Mental Ill-Health: Reflections on Ethnographic Utility. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 30 (1), 36-55. American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA).
Christie, M., Miller, P. K., & Dewhurst, S. (2015). Green exercise and cardiovascular health: Quantitative evidence from a community conservation intervention in the UK. European Scientific Journal, 11, 343-356.
Christie, M., Thomson, M., Cole, F. & Miller, P. K. (2016a). Personality Disorder and Intellectual Disability: The Impacts of Horticultural Therapy Within a Medium-Secure Unit. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 26 (1), 3-17. American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA).
Christie, M. & Cole, F. (2016b). The Impact of Green Exercise on Volunteers' Mental Health and Wellbeing-Findings from a Community Project in a Woodland Setting. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 26 (2), 16-32. American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA).
Christie, M. (2017). Benefit Nature, Benefit Self - and Others: Older Adults and their Volunteer Experiences of Engagement in a Conservation Themed Urban Park. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 27 (2), 19-38. American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA).