The power of joining in?

Back in June 2012 I wrote about taking part in my first Green Gym session. Today for the first time I led (on my own) a Green Gym session, which was the first of a programme of Green Gym activities that I have arranged for The Conservation Volunteers.

I find it easy to get enthusiastic about the Green Gym. My motivation to work with The Conservation Volunteers is to gain experience in running community projects and in leading activities that are focused on improving local surroundings plus learning how to teach and improve my own environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving helping the self through conservation work, both physically and mentally. A free for participants health resource that I think is much needed in a lot of communities

In October 2012, The Guardian Healthcare network published a fascinating article about the work Green Gym programmes have done in Leeds and Birmingham. It is well worth a read. I have been keeping this article in mind when working on this season’s programme for our Green Gym. I am minded of the importance of keeping sessions interesting, varied and, most importantly, fun and friendly. But I also believe that it is important that our Green Gym session are accessible. Unlike many other Green Gyms around the country we do not work on a single site, and cover a large part of West Berkshire, a predominately rural area. We now have some fantastic and wonderful ‘regulars’ but I don’t want location to preclude more participants joining in. Participants that might not otherwise get involved in other conservation activities in the area, but would really benefit from the scheme. So the new programme includes reducing the number of sites we visit and having as many sites that are accessible by public transport as possible, while still keeping interest and variation.

Transport isn’t the only hurdle to accessibility, and am continually looking for other ways to help the project reach as many people as possible. But it is a start. And hopefully some of our Green Gymers will get the benefits those in Leeds and Birmingham have experienced.

If you have any suggestions how to make community projects accessible to as many of the community as possible, I’d love to hear them?

The 2013 programme for the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym can be found here.

The Community Orchard

This part of West Berkshire is now most famous for being the kind of place that produces princesses. But amongst the grand houses and rolling countryside, one West Berkshire Parish Council is working on a unique community resource – a community orchard.

Cold Ash Community Orchard

An orchard is a collection of fruit trees. In particular, a community orchard may be owned or leased for or by the community (or held by agreement) by a community group, parish council, or by a local authority or voluntary body. Community orchards should be open and accessible at all times. As well as enjoying the place, local people can share the harvest or profit from its sale, taking responsibility for any work in the orchard (Source).

Cold Ash Community Orchard is run by Cold Ash Parish Council. We visited the site with the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym, to help the Parish Council by planting a new hedge along one of the orchard boundaries. The new hedge comprises native species, such as Spindle, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Cherry and Dogwood Rose. As well as planting the hedge whips, the Green Gym also protected them from hungry wildlife with rabbit guards.

Hedge planting

The habitat values of hedgerows are well documented. But what particularly interested me about this site was the community resource being provided. Community orchards are currently being actively encouraged by the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of the localism and decentralisation agenda. Community orchards strive to be the focal point for community activities. As well as the provision of acessible open space, they can promote the health benefits of fresh produce and outdoor exercise. Additionally there are opportunities for access to land for food growing and opportunities for assisting those who want to grow their own food (Source: DCLG).

Despite being a relatively affluent area, this part of West Berkshire, like many rural areas, still has residents that don’t have access to open space and places to grow food, which can have health implications and also increase vulnerability to food poverty. It will be really interesting to see how this community project developed and how similar schemes might be able to be implemented elsewhere.

The Department for Communities and Local Government produce two guidance documents on community orchards: A PDF ‘How to’ guide can be found here and a collection of case studies about of community orchards around the UK can be found here.

The Green Gym

Originally posted 25th June 2012
An extra dose of The Conservation Volunteers this week as this morning I took part in my first session at the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym.

The Green Gym concept is quite intreging. Most TCV activities are focused on improving local surroundings and sharing and improving environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving the self, both physically and mentally. The TCV website outlines these benefits:

  • 100% of participants interviewed during the current National Evaluation agree that taking part in the Green Gym has benefited their mental health, boosting self-esteem and confidence through learning new skills and completing new tasks
  • Green Gym provides moderate physical activity: People who are regularly active at this level are 50% less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke than inactive people
  • Working out in green spaces is a great way to relieve stress and can help to combat depression
  • Taking part in the Green Gym improves muscle strength, which is particularly important for older people, helping to maintain independence in later life
  • Participants report feeling fitter and having more energy than before
  • Almost a third more calories can be burnt in an hour of some Green Gym activities than in doing a step aerobics class

I’m really fascinated by the third bullet point, about combating depression. The Mental Health Foundation outlines a huge range of benefits of exercise from the release of mood improving hormones, to providing opportunities to meet people and having an opportunity to escape day-to-day life.

Personally, I enjoyed my first session. Despite feeling rather daft doing warm-up and warm-down in the middle of Newbury’s main park – it was hard work, but I’d rather be outside in the fresh air. Even though the focus of my volunteering has been looking at improving public spaces, I do find it uplifting and invigorating. I get home exhausted but in a really buoyant mood, feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s not something I have considered before but it is interesting that my volunteering might be improving my mental health too. If this looks like it might be working for me, it would be interesting to see what kind of health resource the Green Gym might provide for the local community.