If we compress human evolution into 24 hours, then for around 23 hours and 58 minutes – over 99 per cent of our existence – we lived, worked and thrived in the great outdoors. In this mostly challenging environment, despite the lack of medicines, technology, communications and our relative weakness to many predators, we became the world’s dominant species. As pack animals, it was by supporting each other, sharing and learning through adversity and successes, that we evolved extraordinary resilience, which many people still demonstrate this every day.
As a hunter-gather species we evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment. Muscle produces our own self-regulation pharmacy, called myokines, triggered by physical activity and temperature changes. These help regulate inflammation, oxidation, pain and control a wide range of metabolic functions, at no cost and all without negative side effects!
Simply being in green spaces improves our mental health and wellbeing. Late last year The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) joined up with the BBC and the University of Westminster to run a specific Green Gym in Regent’s Park, for the highly successful Trust Me I’m a Doctor programme. This eight-week conservation-focused scheme demonstrated improved cortisol awakening response as well as reduced anxiety, at the same time enhancing biodiversity in the park. But as with so much of this “learning”, it’s nothing new:
“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature, with an open mind” (Paracelsus, 1493-1541)
My experience has shown me that for many of the health issues we face today medical options have limited effect, particularly on the underlying cause. However, there are numerous studies showing neurochemical changes from positive group engagement support enhanced bonding, reduced aggression and dulled perceptions of pain.
Physical activity regulates blood sugar, builds muscular and skeletal strength, returns blood from the extremities, helps food pass through us more quickly and improves mood. Yet in today’s desk-bound workplaces and with the plethora of labour-saving devices, we have little need to be active.
We have a symbiotic relationship with the natural world, we are seeing the impact of breaking this in the news most days now, both on the health of our plant and ourselves. But when we engage in nature we reconnect with hundreds of thousands of years of learning and imprinting. I believe we have lost our inherited nature-literacy and should strive to find it once again for the benefit of all.
TCV has well over 100 opportunities to get out and active across London, which is a surprisingly green city, including Green Gym, so you can be active with others in green spaces. Find your nearest opportunity. Using the five ways to wellbeing model: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give, finding green spaces, however small, has great potential to improve your health and wellbeing. In most cases I believe that humans are altruistic, within boundaries and given the opportunity, particularly where they feel their actions have lasting impact. Through the Postcode Green Trust, players of People’s Postcode Lottery have supported TCV to raise the profile of Green Gym so that others can feel this benefit too.
Our ancestors instinctively knew that group based physical activity with a purpose (i.e. managing green spaces) is rewarding, health-promoting and enhances relationships. We are all descendants of survivors, so you all have it in you to re-engage with nature. After all it’s not rocket science, it’s (human) nature.