Thursday, 26 March 2015

Daily Dose of Nature Dr Bird

My thoughts on the fascinating and persuasive presentation by Dr William Bird, more information about William and Intelligent Health can be found here.

Dr Bird pointed out that we have moved a long way in the last 20 years, green gym was thought to be crazy now accepted - results are not aways immediate but keeping the momentum going is important. Initiatives often attract those who are already interested, the problem is igniting interested in those who are not. Primary school children are an engine to drive change in communities, start young the children will become marketeers.

I have worked in / with a fair few primary schools over the last 30 years, there have always been teachers with an interest in learning outside the classroom and residential / day trips to natural and built outdoor places have featured since when I was at school in 60s-70s. It does feel like there is more acknowledgement and more funding being directed at developing school grounds and doing nature walks or similar. I have seen school grounds transformed from fairly bland grassed areas to well planted mixes of wild adventure areas and sensory gardens and with meeting places and areas for Forest School type activities. I now teach undergraduate modules that focus on outdoor play, there is clearly a growing momentum.

Compared with the many millions of years of evolution that built our bodies to survive and excel in the outdoors the dawn of built 'civilisation' is a tiny space of time. Through most of civilised time we had a significant proportion of outdoor time and hard labour it is only a tiny proportion of our evolution where outdoors has not dominated life. Do we want to head towards a Wall-e future?

Some urban landscapes can be very stark, bleak places. 

On my way to the event I met this large shiny sphere and it was quite impressive, cities are improving but can still feel like uninviting and slightly scary alien landscapes. Perfect squares and sharp edges making parallel lines are not common in nature but are very much so in architecture. Cubes or cuboids are very easy shapes to use, they lock together well and make good stable structures but the end result can be rather brutal compared to the huge diversity of shapes in the natural world. Architecture has evolved considerably over the last 50 years or so largely enabled by advances in construction techniques freeing the imaginers to widen their horizons. There are some fantastical buildings but even in recently constructed areas there can still be hints of brutalist architecture. A living green bridge in London will cost a fortune to build and maintain but could impact positively on many lives. Vertical gardening and roof gardens are transforming the look of some urban areas and cleaning the air at the same time. The slide below shoes a positive impact just from vegetation, hopefully the greening cities will improve life for millions.

Whatever form it is in green space reduces stress.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this presentation was the links to research papers. Evans is here.

High income families can afford more stimulating lifestyles and to escape to green places. The impact of living in very green areas seems clear, again its a paper to read.

Green things are mitochondria once free living - I found a little more on this via Welcome trust :
Mitochondria were not always resident within another cell; they were once organisms in their own right. When survival became tough they formed a relationship with another organism and they both benefitted. One gained the ability to use oxygen to produce energy, while the other gained protection against predators.  This relationship has lasted for billions of years and has allowed multi-celled life forms to become bigger and more complex. We call this the endosymbiotic theory, which comes from the Ancient Greek words  for ‘to live within together’.

When stressed cells release free radicals...

...these damage chromosomes... Paper is here.

...this accelerates cellular ageing and...  Paper is here

...leads to senescence a process that is linked to non-communicable diseases. Book is here

This was the big sit up and take notice slide of the whole day IMO. I missed photographing an excellent composite slide showing communicable and non-communicable disease. We have made huge progress towards eliminating communicable disease. Non communicable diseases are often lifestyle related, the NHS can not afford to treat the outcomes. It is more effective, cheaper and more desirable to treat the root causes. It is not always easy to do as evidenced by smokers who feel making tobacco illegal would impinge on their right to personal freedom.

I must look into this project in more detail.

Richard Louv provided a keynote via a video link he discussed the US park initiative and tweeted a link to the information
Let’s hope the 'Every Kid in a Park' initiative seeds the idea that public parks should be free to all children.

There was a lot of discussion about prescribing the outdoors, changing the mindsets of medical practitioners.

I agree that public parks offer good opportunities, however they need to be safe places where parents are not put off by stranger danger risks, untethered dogs or the detritus of society in the form of discarded needles, broken glass etc.

The experience and benefits need to be lived to be believed, it is hard to convince others via sharing experiential knowledge and anecdotal evidence. Personal stories are very important evidence but is not enough to feel you know that getting people outdoors is a good thing even though to advocates it just seems blindingly obvious common sense.

For me this presentation showed that there is convincing and credible research underpinning ideas that outdoor experiences are a good thing, an essential element of a healthy, fulfilling and long life. This is what we should be pushing forwards with.

Dr Bird and others indicated that promoting these ideas in the media is problematic, there is no perceived immediate benefit to those who are already chronically ill. The NHS is in crisis and very short of money already, Cornish hospitals in black alert state should not happen. Advocating investment in preventative solutions during a time of crisis when many are facing delayed operations and other treatment issues does not go down well. Solutions that prevent illness have relatively intangible outcomes, remaining well is an expectation. Many people are fairly optimistic, that childhood feeling of 'I'm going to live forever' may fade as we experience people getting ill and dying but conceptually not getting ill is less noticeable than being cured from illness. The proof that a healthy lifestyle was a good idea really only arrives when we make it to old age in good condition. This was clearly illustrated to my by my granny who, on reaching 103, declared she must have done the right things to live long and prosper. Communicable diseases hit us on that journey and may well mitigate the potential to believe in lifestyle impact.

Pharmaceutical companies needs ill patients if they are to make profit, it was suggested that some health trusts feel the same about maintaining their own income. This is an appalling situation but profit / money drives many initiatives. perhaps if the Every Kid in a Park linked from Richard Louv's Tweet above works out well that is something we could build on in the UK.

A bit off the focus but I have always loved this poster, a fair bit of shape tweeking was needed to make this match.

I think there are other problems with promoting outdoor experiences. I  have spent my whole life loving the outdoors, I am not a spiritual person, I lost faith in adults as truth givers when I found that faeries and 'Father Christmas' were deceptions. How weird it is that parents tell children they must always tell the truth then promote untruths themselves. I feel that some aspects of some outdoor movements can decrease the credibility and lead to perceptions of outdoor advocates as just people filling the heads of children with some hippy nonsense. I am sure that is not going to go down well with a lot of people but that is how I feel and I have met many parents and teachers who have been put off by that aspect. I don't see anything spiritual in meditation but tranquil time does seem good for calming and clearing the mind so I do meditate although a lot less so recently. I felt reassured by seeing this linked to research on one of Dr Bird's slides.

Not all outdoor time is calm tranquil in a physical sense, some activities such as surfing or rock climbing are intense but also imbue deep inner tranquillity, a sense of being in tune and intensely stoked at the same time with an associated sense of sense of timelessness very akin to the experiences in deep meditation. Mihaly and Isabella Csikszentmihalyi identified this as a state of mind present in optimal experiences. Below is a quick explanation of Flow from one of my EdD papers.
When I have promoted some aspects of what I love about the outdoors I have been aware of agreement from people already into the same but a bit of a stand back from some who are not. I talked about outdoor activity and states of flow or optimal learning in a primary school when I was a governor in the 90s the response was not great. It felt like they were responding to me from the same mind-space I am in when cold called by religious evangelists knocking at my door. Two different worlds with an impassable gulf between. We need to be careful how we promote, we need to adapt how we promote to suit different audiences but must keep the momentum going. Evidence based on good science, like that presented by Dr Bird, is compelling and helps legitimise what outdoor advocates have been promoting for a long time, I am less inclined towards buzz phrases such as 'vitamin N' (Nature). My son aged 12 came home a few months ago asking me if there really was a vitamin N, he couldn't really get the rather wooly catch phrase concept - "Vitamins are vitamins, they should just say nature is good for you" he said.

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