Des de Moor: get fit, go green

Walking outdoors

We all know physical activity is good for our health – and that as a society we don’t do enough of it. But there’s more and more scientific evidence to show that being active in natural, green surroundings is better still.

This may come as no surprise to many readers. But the evidence is even more important at a time when we face growing public health problems with shrinking public resources to tackle them. Among these problems are physical inactivity – now a scourge equivalent to smoking and one that, according to Public Health England, will destabilise the NHS if we don’t do something about it – and poor mental health.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been in various forums talking about the links between physical activity and walking, the environment, and public health and wellbeing. Public Health England and fitness organisation ukactive have hosted several regional workshops aimed at helping councils, the NHS and the voluntary sector get everybody active, every day.

These events have been well-attended and inspiring, a demonstration of how much further up the agenda the issue now is – but they’ve also been fraught with concerns about cuts, lack of political leadership and the challenge of different departments and sectors working effectively together.

Another conference, in Bristol as part of the city’s year as European Green Capital, took a different approach by putting the case for the public health benefits of nature and green space. Organised by the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, the conference was linked to a campaign supported by the Ramblers for a Nature and Wellbeing Act, protecting and regenerating the natural environment for its social benefits.

Speakers made the case that not only is green space a great place to get active, it’s also directly linked to our physical and mental wellbeing and our capacity to recover from illness – unsurprisingly considering we evolved as active creatures in a natural environment. Dr William Bird, the founder of Walking for Health (now led in England by the Ramblers in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support), showed us the negative effect on our bodies’ cells of being sedentary indoors compared to being active outdoors.

Green space

And of course green environments have many other public health benefits too, from improving air quality to helping keep cities cool. This is nothing new. Historically, public parks were a response to public health concerns, in particular the health problems caused by poor housing, poverty, pollution and overcrowding in rapidly growing Victorian industrial cities.

For Ramblers, well-maintained and accessible green spaces provide particularly attractive and safe spaces for walking away from traffic – vital if we’re to get more people walking in the towns and cities where 80% of us now live. Most health walks take place in local parks. Planners often forget that green spaces are key links in walking (and cycling) networks, places that people go through as well as to.

Yet research published last year by the Heritage Lottery Fund shows that parks and green spaces are under threat as never before. Most are the responsibility of local authorities, yet councils aren’t required by law to provide them. So in these austere times when more obviously essential services are under threat, they’re particularly vulnerable to funding cuts and to development pressures, despite the huge benefits they bring to public health. And while a well-maintained green space is a shining community asset, a neglected one blighted by litter, crime and antisocial behaviour can quickly become a community liability.

To help get Britain walking, active, happy and healthy, we need to do more to protect parks and local green spaces as we protect the wider countryside. At the same time, we can all benefit from understanding just how great going green outdoors is for our health – something to remember next time you see someone on a treadmill or an exercise bike in a gym!

Des de Moor is the Ramblers Senior Everyday Walking Officer and a longstanding advocate for walking and health.

David Moore

Good points that have yet to be properly taken on board nationally.
Just as the NHS and social care need joined-up thinking there also needs to be a stronger link between the NHS and physical exercise.