Research says that combining exercise with nature boosts wellbeing. Angela Tufvesson heads outdoors to join a green gym


Proponents of the green movement say eco-living is an integrative concept. It’s best incorporated into the routine of everyday life, rather than as an add-on.

Finding time to exercise is much the same. So often the excuse for avoiding the gym is lack of time due to work and family commitments, but there are plenty of ways to get moving within the confines of a normal work day. Working out in your lunch break, cycling to work and fitness DVDs are just some of the solutions offered to time-poor exercisers.

So what’s the green equivalent? Until recently, there weren’t many options, despite the fact that the link between the great outdoors and wellbeing, particularly mental health, is well established.

In 2007, Mind, a leading mental health charity in the UK, studied the effect of ‘green’ exercise such as walking, gardening and conservation on mental health, and as a result coined the phrase ‘ecotherapy’.

The research showed going for a walk or tending to a vegie garden reduces depression, while walking in a shopping centre or urban environment increases depression.

Similarly, new local research found that green spaces in urban environments had a positive influence on health. The Green We Need, a global study undertaken by the University of Newcastle, found that people interacting with nature could better cope with stress and were more productive than those who spent more time indoors.

Green with exercise

A new initiative by Conservation Volunteers Australia aims to put these findings into practice, with the added benefit of a good old-fashioned workout sure to get your heart pumping.

Green Gym is a fitness program that engages gym-goers in practical conservation activities designed to benefit their health and the environment.

“It’s all about getting out into nature to improve your health,” says project officer Adam Smolak.  “Doing something positive for the environment and improving your health means you’re getting twice the benefit in half the time.”

Offered as an alternative to traditional gym programs and organised sports, Green Gym involves small teams of up to 10 participants in a range of conservation and outdoor activities. Typical activities include gardening, tree planting, weeding, track and trail maintenance and flora and fauna surveys.

“The level and type of exercise varies and can be tailored to suit everyone’s needs,” Smolak says. “If you want to dig up five garden beds you can go as hard as you like and you’ll be worn out. Other parts of the program are lighter; for example, we’ve weeded in the botanical gardens for two hours followed by a 2km walk. So you’re not running but you’re using your muscles.”

Independent research carried out on its parent program in the UK found that Green Gym participants showed significant increases in fitness and improved muscular strength. Waist-to-hip ratios decreased and there was also a trend towards weight loss.

Interestingly, major motivating factors for participation and adherence to the program included the environmental and social aspects. So perhaps there’s more to a good workout than toning up or losing a few kilos.

Participants are asked to commit to two four-hour sessions per week over a 12-week period. So their progress over the 12 weeks can be monitored, participants are asked to complete a health survey at the beginning and end of the program. Smolak says the results are almost always positive, with participants reporting a significant jump in their perceived wellbeing.

“A lot of people love the combination of exercise and social interaction. They finish the program feeling less anxious and more optimistic about their future, and say they’ve improved their physical and particularly their mental health.

“A lot of people talk about the calming effects of coming along and working at your own pace in nature and hearing the birds. They come to our organisation to try to help the environment, but at the same time we want to improve their holistic health.

“We try to encourage people to see the correlation between being social, exercising, health and the environment.”

DIY green gym
Can’t commit to regular four-hour sessions? The principles of the Green Gym are easily applied in your own home. Consider planting a vegie patch to tend to on weekends, or go for a jog in your local park or botanic gardens.

To achieve the full Green Gym experience, get your family involved with the gardening and jog with a group of friends.

The combination of nature, social interaction and exercise is sure to benefit your physical and mental health.

What’s more, the program is free – and there’s not a joining fee in sight.
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Want to lose weight fast? Try high intensity interval training or choose a workout to suit you.