Lancaster community ‘green exercise’ project generates second research paper

Lancaster community ‘green exercise’ project generates second research paper 
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A ‘green exercise’ project in Williamson Park, Lancaster, that started in September 2010 as a six-week pilot, will celebrate over six full years of operation with the forthcoming publication of a second research paper based upon its activities. The urban park, situated opposite the Lancaster campus of the University of Cumbria, has been the focus of the ‘Greenfingers’ project, which set out to investigate the physical, mental and social health benefits of participation in conservation volunteering.

An earlier paper (published in 2015) focused on the contribution of conservation work to physical health through monitoring over forty volunteers’ heart rate response to their ‘green exercise’ efforts. The latest research paper has focused on a small, dedicated band of conservation who have taken part in the project since it began.

The paper, to be published in the ‘Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture’ in October, highlights the project’s positive impact on volunteers’ health and wellbeing as well as the immediate environment.

“Some of the volunteers have been with us from the very beginning so it’s exciting for me to reveal the benefits that have flowed from the project not only to the volunteers themselves, but also in terms of the park and, by association, the local community,” Mark Christie, senior lecturer in sport and physical development, said. “It’s a testimony to the volunteers’ dedication and hard work that the project has become such a success. For example, they have reinvigorated a moribund ‘Friends of Williamson Park’ group that not only expands upon the original concept of Greenfingers as a conservation initiative, but also helps fundraise for various exciting small-scale projects around the park. These collective efforts have therefore made a significant and ongoing impact in respect of enhancing levels of personal, social and community capital”.

Using an ethnographic methodology, the research conducted field-based semi-structured interviews with the long-term participating volunteers at various timelines throughout a five-year period. Some interviews were conducted whilst volunteers worked akin to a ‘talk aloud’ protocol, capturing thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding their experiences in the ‘here and now’, whilst others were undertaken in the park café at a natural break in the conservation work, which typically lasted for two hours every Thursday morning. The findings highlighted the health benefits derived by the volunteers (physical, and psycho-social health), which extended to encouraging more activity outside of the project.

In addition, the research gave voice to the positive impacts on personal, social and community capital, with examples such as enhancements to individuals’ knowledge and skill development; contribution to group dynamics (for instance in respect of social and task cohesion), and the benefits to the immediate environment. The latter was apparent in terms of the enhancements to areas of the park, for example in removing non-native shrubs; renovating a bird hide and the Butterfly House; developing new flower beds; and planting trees, a wildflower meadow and spring bulbs around the park, amongst other achievements.

These efforts were recognized with the siting of an interpretation board in one part of the park. In addition, there were tangible impacts in terms of community development, with the council also involving a youth offenders group in the collective efforts to tidy up the ornamental ponds and mental health service users attending Greenfingers on a Thursday morning to benefit their health and wellbeing.

Findings also uncovered the factors that engaged and sustained volunteers’ participation, with the non-pressurised context, varied tasks and the group ‘craic’ (as one of the volunteers referred to the social dynamics) being prominent factors.

The project has also been a useful vehicle for students studying a health promotion module to obtain ‘hands on’ experience of working with the volunteers.

“It was good for student cohorts to appreciate that green exercise can engage people in meaningful, positive physical activity experiences as an alternative to other forms of exercise - such as that provided through fitness centres and traditional sport - and the health benefits from involvement in a conservation themed group project,” added Mark Christie. “As the health sector grapples with a worsening situation in respect of the health of the nation, social prescribing initiatives of this type may provide a means by which people can be engaged in forms of exercise that motivate and inspire them - not only to improve their health, but also to derive enjoyment from being in a natural environment and make a contribution to their own community”.

Mark has expanded his research to include a woodland mental health themed project north of Lancaster as well as a collaborative project with the NHS within the region. Both have resulted in research papers with Mark’s work also being highlighted by Dr. Sarah Woolaston MP, chair of the health select committee, who is a key proponent of ‘social prescribing’ as an alternative means of enhancing public health. Mark and colleague Fiona Cole from occupational therapy (who co-authored another paper on green exercise and mental health) have also been approached by other community groups to disseminate research findings or offer advice on similar projects.

Mark is now looking to embark on a PhD in ‘green exercise’ and hopes to have achieved this within the next two years through a PhD by publication route.