Nature is good for your health

October 10, 2017

From royal princes to sporting legends and celebrities, it’s been hard to miss recent coverage on the importance of facing up to our mental health. We spoke to Dr William Bird from Intelligent Health about the role the National Park could play in tackling health and wellbeing.

In the early 1990s, as a new GP, Dr William Bird realised that not only were his patients not getting enough physical activity, but also that mental, physical and social barriers made it pointless to recommend they go running or join a gym. He understood that encouraging and supporting moderate physical activity to fit into his patient’s lives would improve their health far more than recommending vigorous exercise in an alien environment where they felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.

“Most people feel that they’re already doing enough activity. But even those who recognise that they aren’t think that exercise has to be a ‘special occasion’ like going for a run or making a trip to the gym and that’s enough to put them off. Or they see it as something ‘designed for other people’, the slim, already fit people you’d expect to see in a gym.”

On 6 April 1996 he led his first 20 patients on a Health Walk. A 20-minute brisk walk around their local area. They returned smiling having experienced their community in an entirely different way. Now 35,000 people take part in Health Walks every week. Soon after he developed the idea of the Green Gym – where people come together to get fit through conservation work.

These simple ideas work. Oxford University carried out a two-year evaluation and found the benefits were being sustained. People who joined the Health Walks were also choosing to walk more in other parts of their lives. They also found that joining groups to walk, talk, and having a coffee together afterwards improved mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The University of Herts have shown that the Green Gyms in particular make a huge improvement to mental health because being out in nature both reduces, and improves people’s ability to cope with, stress.

So what does William think this means for the National Park?

“There’s a real disconnect. People who aren’t being active where they live aren’t going to visit the National Park to be active either. They don’t know how they’re supposed to use the countryside and find it genuinely scary. You’ll find the people who don’t have these issues out in the countryside but we won’t get those who really need it unless they go with people who can show them a way that they can make their own connections with nature.

“The first thing is to get insight into exactly why they don’t feel comfortable and like they don’t belong in a National Park. Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign spent an entire year just trying to understand why women aren’t doing as much sport as men and it turns out it’s because they feel body conscious and embarrassed.
With this knowledge Sport England have been able to create a phenomenally successful campaign that tackles these concerns head on.

“I’m afraid it’s going to make some of the National Park’s current visitors squirm because to get all these people to value nature we need to make it relevant to them and this might be through a fete or a festival or it might be encouraging BMX trails or hosting barbeques.

“It will take a big cultural change because you have to genuinely make these people, from deprived areas, who aren’t interested in wildlife or landscapes, feel welcome and like the National Park is a place for them before you can get them excited or involved.

“The action itself doesn’t necessarily have to be big. I know of one case where someone opened up a wood and wanted to encourage more people to visit and play there. They bought 20 pairs of wellies for kids to borrow to wade in the stream. Soon there were queues of excited kids waiting to borrow the wellies and break the taboo of not getting dirty and muddy.”

Recently Dr Bird’s organisation Intelligent Health has launched an even more ambitious plan to get entire cities more active and keep them active by playing a game called ‘Beat the Street’ which removes the psychological barriers to exercise completely.

“We don’t talk about health and we don’t mention exercise. Players – almost an equal numbers of adults and young people – collect points by visiting places in their town or city. We have created a game that is fun to play and promotes happiness which just happens to require people to walk and visit green spaces. 300,000 people took part in 2016.”

And how does Dr Bird see success?

“Firstly I would like being connected to nature to be seen as a fundamental right for all children. Secondly I would like to see healthcare change from being something we do to people to something that people do for themselves by recognising their own value and responsibility. I believe the way to achieve this is through outdoor activity which connects people with each other, with the place they live and with nature – and this should be a fundamental pillar of health care.”

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