How conservation volunteering could be the ideal way to get fit

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 January 2017

Conservation volunteers on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

Conservation volunteers on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

Beth Alvey

After the excesses of Christmas it’s no wonder we reach for the Lycra at New Year. But there is an alternative to the gym, says Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy.

Conservation volunteers at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust landConservation volunteers at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

Research suggests that at this time of year two thirds of us will vow we’re going to beat the bulge, and many of us will head for the gym, although most will have given up on that by the end of January. Even those who battle on through the spring tend to have abandoned their intentions by June.

Unused gym memberships waste millions of pounds every year but there is a cheap and easy alternative to pumping iron and hitting the treadmill, one with other benefits which might keep you coming back far longer than the lure of a post-burn protein shake. The surprising answer lies in conservation volunteering.

You may be more familiar with phrases like hot yoga or kettle bells when it comes to keeping fit but volunteering for conservation charities is becoming recognised for its benefits to physical and mental well-being. It’s gained such a reputation that doctors and psychologists in many areas have begun to suggest it over conventional pills for anything from depression to diabetes. But how can something so seemly unrelated have suddenly become the latest cure-all?

Volunteering in conservation can take many forms, from the physical to the scientific, from the office-bound to the great outdoors and each role has its own benefits. For older people, the social network formed during volunteer hours has been shown to decrease their sense of isolation, stopping depression and even helping them to live longer.

A conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust landA conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

For those suffering from living a busy modern life, the chance to interact with nature can drop stress hormones almost immediately. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the ‘happiness effect’. During a strenuous workout, dopamines are released, giving a natural high. The same is true when we lend a helping hand, making us feel happier and more fulfilled.

But what about the physical aspect? Can a day messing around in a meadow or wandering through a woodland really compare to a session at the gym?

For many of our practical volunteers at Cheshire Wildlife Trust, the year starts with a good spot of scrub clearance. Taking place outside the main nesting season, so as not to disturb breeding birds, scrub clearance can only be carried out from September to February and burns an estimated 600 calories an hour – which is roughly the same as you’d burn on a 60 minute jog. Working your arms as you saw through tough and knotted wood, your thighs and glutes as you repeatedly crouch down to get a nice low cut and your core as you lift logs or bundles of brash, no one can argue against this being a good hard work out. And the benefits go two ways, as volunteers help to conserve vital mossland habitats such as Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere Nature Reserve, where invading scrub threatens rare and delicate species such as the marsh violet.

Moving into spring, work can quickly change. As the birds take up their nests we move away from the tree line and into other vital areas such as our all important grasslands. Swettenham Meadows has a wide variety of wildflowers, which emerge in waves of colour throughout the summer. Purple-headed scabious, delicate white pignut and golden meadow buttercups all take their turn in the limelight. So what could be more exciting than to help bring about this bloom in an area which has long since lost it?

A conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust landA conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

Plug planting of flowers in a newly created meadow can be the perfect work out for your quads and bum, a squat training session to rival any Pilates class. And in the early spring sunshine, with the first butterflies visiting your previously planted blooms where would you rather be?

Come summer the grass is long and in need of a haircut. Poldark had good reason to go about topless, as scything is an incredible work out for the chest and arms. A constant gentle swinging motion, it may not look particularly energetic but this activity burns 300 calories an hour and our volunteers certainly feel they’ve done their aerobics for the day at the end of it. A social activity and an art form in its own right, everyone should have a go at scything at least once, if only to understand a little more about the heritage of our countryside. Our Stockport scything group are out regularly when the sun is shining, enjoying an old fashioned day in the fields.

As the summer days get longer, new workout opportunities constantly present themselves. Paths are essential for everyone’s safe enjoyment of our nature reserves and prevent damage to important wildlife. Path maintenance is tough and time-consuming work, just ask the volunteers who spend hours hammering together boardwalks or shifting wheelbarrows full of gravel. Working your core and your legs is just the start for this kind of physical labour, which at times feels comparable to a session on the weights. At the Quinta Nature Reserve, it’s this kind of work that ensures people can enjoy the beauty of the woodlands and fields all year round.

In the autumn, as the birds leave their nests, we once again begin the task of scrub clearing, a healthy summer’s work behind us. But all year, every year, new tasks are presented, new needs are found, keeping our volunteers on their toes, and more importantly on their feet. But although the health benefits of volunteering are obvious, ask any volunteer what makes them return each week, or month, or year, and their answer will probably be that they enjoy giving back and seeing the positive changes they are creating in the landscape.

A conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust landA conservation volunteer at work on Cheshire Wildlife Trust land

To know that there’s a field full of flowers they can put their name to, or a woodland full of birdsong they can be proud of, is no doubt a wonderful reward to an excellent fitness session.

So why not try a different kind of exercise this spring? Whether it’s pulling invading saplings, building fences or planting hedgerows there’s always something to get your blood pumping and your ‘happiness hormones’ thumping.

Our mental wellbeing is just as important as our physical and with that in mind Cheshire Wildlife Trust has embarked on an exciting new project. The Wellbeing Programme offers opportunities for adults with mental health conditions to enjoy the benefits of practical volunteering, getting outdoors and enjoying local wildlife in a supported environment.

If you’d like to learn more about the programme please contact Beth Alvey balvey@cheshirewt.org.uk.

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