PSI Event Going Green for Wellbeing: A Case Study Approach to Implementing Green Exercise

Dr. Chris Gidlow speaking at the PSI event.

On Friday, October 14th, the Division of Sport, Exercise and Performance hosted a workshop chaired by Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre at PSI (University of Limerick) entitled “Going Green for Wellbeing: A Case Study Approach to Implementing Green Exercise” at the Psychological Society of Ireland’s HQ, Grantham Street, Dublin. The workshop was based upon the work of the Going Outdoors: Gathering Research Evidence on Emotions Nature and Exercise (GOGREENEx) research team which is comprised of researchers from a variety of disciplines who have a keen interest in interactions between humans and the natural environment. The principal aim was to assess the impact of the human-nature interaction on individuals, groups and the environment. This was the final outreach event in our series funded by the Irish Research Council.

The workshop commenced with Dr. Christopher Gidlow, a Physical Activity Researcher at Staffordshire University, presenting a substantial body of research evidence which underlined that residing in and completing exercise in natural environments was more beneficial psychologically and health wise than exercising in urban or artificial environments. Exercise in natural environments was seen to be psychologically beneficial in terms of mood, directed attention, restorative experience and perceived effort. The mechanisms at play in accounting for these psychological and health benefits were presented as being fourfold: the physical activity itself, the reduced exposure environmental pollutants, the increased occasion for social interaction, and the restorative, stress reducing properties of natural environment. Though a caveat was highlighted around some limitations to the manner in which some of the evidence was compiled eg. The use of video clips to represent the respective environments, Dr. Gidlow concluded that there was a considerable evidence base to suggest living and exercising in a natural environment appeared to be advantageous in terms of physical and psychological health.

Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre introducing the athlete panel.

True to the interdisciplinary nature of the event, the next contributions came from a triumvirate of elite Irish athletes: Irish Open Water Swimmer Chris Bryan, 2012 Olympian Jessie Barr, and IRUPA Mental Health Ambassador Cathal Sheridan, who each shared their own personal experiences of green exercise and the impact it can have on an individual both psychologically and physically.

Chris Bryan told of how he had travelled the world competing in outdoor swimming events in spectacular venues but had been so intensely focussed on competing that he had failed to notice the splendour of his surroundings. He continued to detail how an increased awareness and acknowledgement of the beauty of the environment in which he was competing enabled him to gain a new perspective on competition and a newfound appreciation having the opportunity to compete in such spectacular surroundings. He explained how he had incorporated green exercise into his own training and how it had helped him adopt a new, less results focussed perspective on competitive sport.

Dr. Chris Gidlow, Dr. Aoife Donnelly with student athletes from UL: Jessie Barr (Athletic Ireland)Chris Bryan (Swim Ireland) and Cathal Sheridan (Munster Rugby)

The workshop continued with hurdler Jessie Barr discussing her experiences of green exercise. She spoke warmly of a yearly training retreat which took athletes away from the monotony of the white lines and red surface of the athletics track and into the more natural environs of forests and beaches in Wexford, labelling the weekend as consistently one of the most anticipated of her year. She also spoke with palpable frustration regarding a persistent Achilles injury which had left her unable to complete running training in natural environments. During this enforced absence, she had come to realise how much she gained from training of this nature, in terms of her own personal well-being.

The final guest speaker was Cathal Sheridan who was unable to attend the event in person (having sustained an unfortunate injury the previous week), but who did offer his thoughts via video link. He spoke of his most positive green exercise experience which occurred in a serene public park in Boston. This experience provided a keen exemplar of the difference savouring and truly immersing oneself in one’s environment can have. Upon his first visit to the park, he spent the majority of his visit attempting to take the perfect photograph to accurately encapsulate the beauty of the scene. However, on returning for a second visit, he described a much richer and invigorating exercise experience when he kept his phone switched off and attempted to completely immerse himself in the environment. He outlined the restorative effect this green exercise experience had had upon him as he returned to training the following week. He finished by outlining his intention to incorporate a regular green exercise component into the training regimes he was devising as coach of his local rugby team with the hope of similar effects being yielded amongst his players.

Discourse

The workshop concluded with a lively group discussion in which those in attendance contributed their own personal experiences with green exercise, as well as opinions on how to influence policy making towards the practical implementation of green exercise in the community.

On the whole, the workshop presented exercise in natural environments as an extremely useful tool in aiding physical and psychological health at both an individual and a societal level and presented a compelling case for increased acknowledgement of these benefits in terms of policy making and town planning decisions.

Stephen Smith an intern on the Go Green Ex project composed the above narrative and thanks to Dr. Olivia Hurley for the images.

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