What if someone told you that instead of walking on a treadmill at a gym (which I lack the discipline to do with any regularity), you could find a way to exercise that would be fun, help you make new friends, teach you some new skills, improve the environment and give you an extraordinary workout?
That’s the idea behind Green Gym, a program that began in England and whose name is surfacing in newspapers and blogs. One blogger in the United States, for example, suggested using the innovative concept of the Green Gym to jumpstart our New Year’s resolutions. A blogger from Ireland also generated readers’ comments, some of which I found hilarious.
The Green Gym program is a predictable merger of two increasingly urgent goals—taking care of our bodies and taking care of the environment.
The concept is simple. At a predetermined time, members of the Green Gym show up to work on a project. The team might construct a drystone wall, build a trail, cultivate a garden or create a wildlife pond. A trained leader provides direction and expertise on the tasks at hand. At the end of the workout session, the participants have enjoyed exercise and camaraderie while taking action to improve the environment.
The growing popularity of Green Gyms in England may be linked to the range of benefits associated with being outdoors. Besides the obvious benefit of physical exercise, outdoor activities are credited with reducing stress and fatigue and improving our mental health as well.
Cedrick Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise says, “There are some very real psychological and physiological benefits to balancing your exercise routine between indoor and outdoor environments.” “Outdoor exercise,” he says, “tends to be more engaging and mentally stimulating due to the changing scenery and terrain—not to mention the mood boost that comes from being outside in the sunshine.”
Youth in particular seem to benefit from outdoor programs. In one study funded by the USDA Forest Service, researchers concluded that “positive effects occur in all the dimensions of academic performance, leadership, self-concept, personality development, interpersonal skills and adventuresomeness.”
Despite this impressive list of benefits, more and more Americans are experiencing virtual nature indoors using electronic devices instead of going outdoors. Two separate studies, the most recent appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, report that after a 50-year increase, use of national parks is declining. In 1988—a year that coincided with the advent of electronic entertainment media—park use began declining and has declined steadily since.
Researchers fear they are “seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature (biophilia) to ‘videophilia,’ which is defined as ‘the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.’ Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.”
The trend is worrisome enough that the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department recently introduced a campaign called “Life’s Better Outside.” Its second campaign, “Outdoor Family,” teaches camping, paddling, archery and other outdoor skills formerly passed on informally from one generation to another. Both programs are intended to get families to turn off electronic devices and enjoy the great outdoors.
Will the concept of Green Gyms spread virally in your community? If you’re ready to import the program, go to http://www2.btcv.org.uk/display/greengym_start. All it takes to bring Green Gyms to your community is a decision by one person to take action. Will that person be you?