By Kate Hamilton, Coed Lleol Research & Training Officer
(in Volume 25)
Actif Woods Wales is Coed Lleol’s flagship social forestry project which aims to improve health and wellbeing in 5 areas of Wales through getting people active through woodland-based activities. The activities range from walking and ‘woodland gym’ programmes to conservation, creative and skills-based sessions. All of them involve physical activity, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more ‘by the way’. At times we refer to the latter as ‘health by stealth’ – a term which is gaining currency in broader discussions about promoting health and wellbeing. Although it is indeed sometimes useful to be ‘stealthy’ about the exercise component of our activities, it is not just the physical activity that matters to participants’ health. In our experience, participants are equally likely to express gains from other elements such as simply being in nature, socialising as part of a group, and being actively supported by skilled leaders. For some of our participants, it is these aspects that are particularly important – even transformative – for their sense of wellbeing, and which they attribute most directly to the project. The paper draws on our monitoring data and participant testimony to illustrate the complex and diverse ways in which taking people into woodlands affects them, and how we are using our practical experience to research these relationships in greater depth.
Actif Woods Wales is a project that Coed Lleol, the Welsh arm of the Small Woods Association, has been running since 2010. The over-arching aim is to demonstrate how woodlands can be used to support health and wellbeing, and to build understanding about the mechanisms and practices involved in doing this. Currently operational in 5 areas of Wales, the project aims to help people who have or are at risk of developing long term health problems to improve their health and wellbeing by getting involved in woodland-based activities.
Activities vary widely between groups and sessions, although a common underlying focus is getting people more physically active as this is such a fundamental element of a healthy lifestyle. Being outdoors and in woodlands draws in people who might not be interested in formal sport or exercise, even though simply getting out there almost always involves some degree of physical effort. Many AWW sessions simply build on this by creating structured and managed opportunities for participants to exert themselves whilst enjoying the woodland environment.
Two of our core activities are walking and ‘woodland gym’. Walking is the most accessible and achievable form of exercise for a huge range of people, whatever their level of fitness, making it very adaptable and inclusive. Woodland gym takes conventional functional fitness training outdoors, using woodlands and the terrain as a natural gym. Although it sounds more hard core, and needs to be delivered by a qualified exercise professional, it can also be calibrated to a wide range of abilities and is particularly good at encouraging participants to achieve appropriate individual goals. In practice both walking and woodland gym sessions often include other activities but inevitably the physical activity agenda is rather explicit: the woodland is used as a site for doing things that everyone recognises as ‘exercise’ but which is made more appealing and achievable by being offered in a woodland setting, with others and with supportive leaders.
A small study of an AWW group in 2014 showed that woodland gym activities had comparable and even slightly higher impacts on participants than the same activities conducted indoors in a conventional gym, in terms of calories burned and intensity of physical effort. While we are looking to build on and round out these findings with further studies, this has already affirmed our confidence that the physical activity participants do during AWW sessions is significant. Our ongoing monitoring data and participant feedback further suggests that attending AWW sessions helps people maintain or increase their overall activity levels and move towards the recommended 150 minutes/week, which will in turn produce more sustained benefits.
Despite such benefits being real and relevant to all our potential participants we do find that some are put off by the idea of attending sessions which smack too much of formal exercise or are explicit about requiring physical effort. This is one reason why a majority of our activities are organised and promoted around engaging a wider range of incentives: being in nature, doing conservation and volunteering work, learning skills, being creative, or simply having fun in the woodlands. In fact, even for the explicitly exercise-focused sessions these broader attractions are an important part of what we offer and the message we convey. Each group ends up developing its own programme depending on its interests and capacities and what the leader can offer: the following are just a few recent examples –
- Clearing invasive species from native woodlands;
- Cooking and tea-making around a campfire;
- Doing biodiversity surveys and nature identification activities;
- Painting, drawing, photography and creative writing;
- Green woodworking;
- Litter picking and path clearance.
Each of these activities involve some element of physical activity, but the appeal to participants is much broader and engages other motivations such as the desire to improve the woodland, make something, learn something, or participate in a group activity. We regularly observe that participants who might be reluctant or fearful if asked to achieve a specific exercise-related goal (e.g. walk 2 miles or get out of breath for 15 minutes) will happily achieve or surpass these goals if the task is framed differently (e.g. reach a particular view point, find where a particular bird roosts or a particular plant grows, gather enough chestnuts to roast for the group, clear brambles from a given patch of ground).
We often refer to these kinds of activities as ‘health by stealth’, echoing a language that is becoming quite commonplace in the health sector at the moment (for instance, ‘stealth interventions’ were the theme of the British Heart Foundation National Centre’s 2014 conference). This terminology highlights a broad recognition that for many people the motivation to get fit or improve health is not enough to get them active. For a variety of reasons people may need other motivations to overcome the things that prevent them being active enough and, particularly, to change their habits on a long-term basis.
From Actif Woods Wales’ experience we can definitely concur that ‘health by stealth’ can be a successful strategy for getting people to get more exercise whilst being motivated by other things. One priority for our ongoing research is, in collaboration with others, to measure the levels of physical effort involved in a wider range of our activities so that we can calibrate these against conventional exercise equivalents. This will allow us to be both more targeted in what we offer to different groups and more able to promote woodland activities as meaningful exercise.
At the same time it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is not just the physical exertion involved in AWW sessions which contributes to participants’ health. Not only do participants come with a very wide range of health concerns – physical, mental and social – but these are often overlapping and multiple, and the ways that participating in sessions impacts on them are complex and sometimes unpredictable. This is best illustrated by a few short extracts from participants’ own testimony, in their own words:
- ‘Before I came to the group I was quite isolated and depressed. I decided to try it in order to start socialising more. The group improved my confidence a lot by learning new skills and having the chance to socialise in a safe environment.’
- ‘ I believe I have benefited mostly through gaining confidence to get out of the house into a safe, quiet and natural environment without getting very anxious’
- ‘Coming here gives your problems, your life perspective because you can see a thing outside of yourself. You can realise that you are part of the natural world. You’re not just stuck in your own head.’
- ‘I’ve met people who have supported me and helped me by talking on the mountain. … I look forward to going on the walks and talking to the people who went. I have made many new friends and feel that these walks are such a valuable part of the community.’
- ‘It’s very special being out in the woods, not just being in a room looking at the walls. The sheer greatness of it all…is being outside!’
Clearly, both being in nature and being with others are central to the experience and to its effects.
When asked directly about their reasons for attending some 70% of AWW participants mentioned, unprompted, social motivations such as making friends, being with others, accomplishing tasks and learning things together, and being encouraged and supported as part of a group. In our quest for the ‘hard facts’ about health improvement it is all-too easy to write this kind of evidence off as trivial, or to see it as just the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff that helps us all feel good about woodland sessions but not meaningful as part of our results.
However, participants’ testimony tells us otherwise. Further, a swathe of health research highlights the deep importance of social factors as determinants of health, even when measured against much more widely-recognised risk factors. For instance, one recent synthesis concludes that the quality and quantity of social relationships rivals smoking and alcohol consumption as predictors of mortality, and outweighs both physical activity and weight-to-height ratio . Clearly, rather than writing this off, it is important to delve further into how and why and for whom the social effects of woodland-based activities matter – as well as to be able to understand the effects of the woodland environment itself.
As the project continues to evolve and innovate in practice, Actif Woods Wales also gives us the opportunity to engage in an ongoing process of collaborative enquiry, involving a wide range of allies and stakeholders as well as researchers from diverse academic disciplines. Collectively, bringing research and practice together, our ambition is that we can expand the evidence base for using woodlands for wellbeing and contribute to the broader project of restoring the links between people and their natural environment.