Gym al fresco

My mind is moving along with my feet, being reminded of the long connection we humans have had with the natural world, a world so much wider, wilder, and less constrained than the one we’ve so recently created for ourselves.”

I am a gym virgin. Not since school days have I set foot inside a gym. Maybe you can put that down to bad memories of my pudgy, 12-year-old self struggling to clamber up ropes; or of the PE teacher caning me for some, I’m sure, minor infraction.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the benefits of physical exercise; quite the opposite. It’s just that I’ve found something that offers all the benefits of the gym without (most of) the pungent, perspirational drawbacks. And that something is taking my exercise in the out-of-doors.

Each time I step out into the nearby bush of The Patch, and take in a lungful of its eucalyptus-tanged air, my mood lifts. After my walks I feel less stressed, my head is clearer, and I am pleasantly puffed. And it’s good for my heart, if I’m to believe the heart-rate monitor on my sports watch. It tells me that after similar amounts of exercise over many months, my heart-rate has lowered.

And it’s not just walking. My gym also offers an al fresco version of spin class, although mountain biking in our bush is a fair bit more exciting – and hazardous – than hopping on an exercise bike. The same goes for the trail running that’s on offer here. No treadmill has mud, dust, stones, roots and rain to add excitement to your running! Occasionally, we even manage to do weights, as when we cut and carry pine trees home at Christmas, hoist a grandchild onto our shoulders, or lift fallen limbs off the track.

I shouldn’t be surprised that exercising in the bush yields benefits. The Japanese, in particular, have been looking into this for years. They have a delightful term, shinrin-yoku, for deliberately spending time in the forest. Roughly translated “forest bathing”, it was developed in the 1980s in response to the often high-stress work environments in that country. As a part of this, the Japanese have conducted research into the benefits of exercise done in a forest setting. They’ve found that it significantly reduces blood pressure and stress levels, improves heart and lung health, and increases positive feelings.

International studies back up the Japanese experience. Barton and Pretty, in 2010, analysed research from all around the world, and confirmed that exercise done “in a green environment improved both self-esteem and mood”. They concluded that “the environment provides an important health service”.

Of course the natural environment is a great deal more than a “health service”. For me this small patch of bush does something for my soul, and for my sense of belonging to place. While out there exercising, I might also be watching a flock of currawongs, or hearing a mob of ravens, or kneeling down to inspect a tiny orchid, or craning my neck to see flowers in the blue gum canopy, or smelling petrichor. In the process, I’m engaging with something that is beyond my small, individual life. My mind is moving along with my feet, being reminded of the long connection we humans have had with the natural world, a world so much wider, wilder, and less constrained than the one we’ve so recently created for ourselves.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I experience wonders every time I’m out in The Patch. It’s not like Benita Epstein’s wry Ego Tourism cartoon, in which a pith-helmeted tourist arrives on an island, and loudly proclaims, “Tell the wild animals I have arrived.” Rather I’ve found that a generous amount of time spent in the bush allows for a slow accumulation of moments: a sighting here, a sound there. Even something as simple as noting the grit and grip of sandstone, or the dusty scuff of mudstone under my feet, adds to that cumulative effect.

Perhaps it’s not unlike the kind of fitness that I gain from this al fresco gym. One or two hour-long walks do not a fit walker make. But the slow accumulation of day upon day, the varied up and down, the flexing of ankles on a rough descent, the working of thigh muscles on a prolonged climb – all of these things accumulate to build a degree of fitness and flexibility.

And so, over the years, time spent in the al fresco gym has yielded its benefits to both body and soul. It’s no instant make-over, more a slow and growing appreciation of, and connection to, The Patch at every level. And there’s one more thing that mightily pleases my inner Scrooge – the al fresco gym is free.

 

. . .

Peter Grant lives in the foothills of kunanyi with his wife. He worked with the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service for 24 years as manager of interpretation and education. His passion for the natural world led him to write Habitat Garden (ABC Books) and found the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize. More of his writing can be seen at naturescribe.com.

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