It’s a chilly spring morning out on the exposed slopes of the Chilterns, and even though I’m wearing hard-wearing trousers, thick woolly socks, trainers, three layers and a jacket, I’m still not properly kitted out for today’s timber-based tasks.
'We need to wear these,’ says Jennifer, co-ordinator of the Green Gym in Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire. She points to a box of thick yellow gloves that look a bit like baseball mitts. I hold up my hands, which are wrapped in woolly black knitted gloves and the group try not to laugh.
‘You’re definitely going to need them,’ says another member of the Wallingford Green Gym. ‘Not just for the wood but in case you get bitten by some small animal that could have a disease.’ I quickly take his advice and pull on the gloves as we make our way over to a patch right in the middle of the 159 hectares.
There are 95 Green Gyms in the UK, but as a die-hard urban dweller I decided to choose this countryside idyll for my first Green Gym experience on the basis of the nature on offer (Oxfordshire is home to many rare species, including the Chalkhill Blue and Silver-Spotted butterflies) and ample conservation opportunities. All Green Gyms revolve around some form of conservation or gardening: in the 10 years since conservation charity BCTV set up its first pilot Green Gym, more than 10,000 volunteers have improved more than 2,500 green spaces – as well as their own health and fitness.
Traditional gyms always recommend a pre-session workout, and super-fit Jennifer gets us going on some warm-up exercises. It’s been a long time since I attempted anything vaguely physical in the outdoors and Jennifer explains that Green Gyms – whose members are often referred from doctor’s surgeries – will work parts of the body often un-serviced by the equipment found in traditional gyms.
‘The upper torso in particular gets a really good workout in the outdoors,’ says Jennifer, in between some vigorous stretching. As I begin to thaw I can feel the first effects of this brisk outdoors exercise, largely helped by breathing in the fresh, clear air rather than the sterility of an urban gym. As we stretch I take in the views of one of the best nature reserves in the country. This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is a magnet for wildlife, and the chalk grassland, scrub and beech woodland are ideal for researching habitat comparisons.
Each Green Gym session is risk-assessed and all leaders are trained in First Aid. After our warm-up session – watched over by a batch of inquisitive sheep – we are kitted out with more industrial-looking gear, including hard hats, and look on as Natural England warden Mick and his helper Andy fell a trio of dead trees. Once they’ve finished, Mick takes off his protective ear muffs and hands me a gnarly log. It’s only dead, damp timber, I think, taking it eagerly, but after a few seconds of struggle I have to plump it down. I aim for some of the smaller logs, which are more manageable thanks to a knee-bend action I master from watching Jennifer. After several of these I begin to understand what she means by an upper-torso workout.
After loading the logs into the back of a truck we motor down through the reserve. Fellow log-loader Kath tells me about her experiences with the Green Gym. ‘I love coppicing,’ she says. ‘It’s vital to manage the trees and make sure they are either growing properly or cut.’
A diverse eco-climate created and managed through the woodland coppicing is important for the survival of species such as doormice. So many woodland areas have been deforested or fragmented, however, that this once-thriving mammal now needs to be protected by law. Taking part in a Green Gym helps these creatures survive, struggling as they are to adapt to other changes in their habitat, such as the removal of hedgerows. Hedges are vital for small animals searching for food, as they provide pathways that are protected from predators. Getting involved in hedge-laying in the course of a Green Gym session means you are not only helping wildlife survive, but also reviving a traditional craft that’s in danger of being forgotten.
Arriving in another spot in the woodland, we set to dragging poles of timber from the truck. Working in pairs, we cut slices into the ends of the poles to create an enclosure for the sheep. I take the bow saw in my gloved hands and spike it through the wood. Even though Jennifer started it off with a well-slashed incision it’s a tough one to get right.
Soon it’s time for a break, and after some much-needed sugar from a batch of homemade flapjacks I get back to my sawing, nearly whooping when the end slices off at what looks like a good angle. We take it up and it fits into the fence. There’s still more to do, however, and tiny Kath and I take it in turns to sink a massive sledgehammer into the newly laid tree stumps. It takes some arm-busting whacks, but they finally slot into the earth, and standing back to admire our nearly complete enclosure – created that morning out of nothing – I have to say it feels a lot more rewarding than 30 minutes on a treadmill.
A typical Green Gym lasts three hours. Sessions are free. To find a Green Gym near you, see www2.btcv.org.uk
• People have many different reasons for joining a Green Gym. Some want to ‘do something for the environment’, and feel fitter too. Others may be recovering from an illness and the exercise will be helpful. There are those who have retired from work but want to keep active.
• Taking part in a Green Gym improves muscle strength and fitness – doing some activities you can burn almost a third more calories than you would in a step aerobics class.
• Research shows that working out in green spaces is a great way to relieve stress and depression.
• Participants report feeling fitter and more energised – and that learning new skills and completing new tasks has improved their mental health, self-esteem and confidence.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008