Healthy Communities

National context
There is growing evidence to show that access to the natural environment improves health and wellbeing, prevents disease and helps people recover from illness more quickly. Experiencing nature in the outdoors can help tackle obesity, coronary heart disease and mental health problems.

This is recognised by the Government in the Natural Environment White Paper (2011)
“The quality of the local natural environment is one of the factors that shape our health over a lifetime.  A good-quality environment is associated with a decrease in problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It is also linked with better mental health, reduced stress and more physical activity. If every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space, an estimated £2.1 billion in healthcare costs could be saved.  On the other hand, a poor local natural environment can damage people’s health and contribute to health inequalities. For example, the social costs of the impacts of air pollution are estimated at £16 billion per year in the UK”

In the Tees Valley
The level of economic and social deprivation can impact on the health of communities. The Government’s Health profiles of local authority areas in England show that the proportion of the Tees Valley population with multiple deprivation is significantly higher than the national average, with lower life expectancy and higher levels of obesity. Getting more people actively engaged with their local natural environment through walking, play and outdoor  pursuits isan issue being tackled by a wide range of organisations and partnerships including local Health and Wellbeing boards, Local Access Forums, green Infrastructure planners and countryside organisations .

 Healthy outdoor activities; Groundwork North East is delivering many practical community based initiatives that maintain and promote better health by using the environment and outdoor activity.  Examples include green exercise projects, environmental volunteering, food growing, play activities and forest schools and green infrastructure delivery. For example  its Green Exercise North East project  which provides outdoor activities for disadvantaged communities in the Tees Valley  and  Tyne and Wear, involved over 1,000 people in 2010/11 in taking part in either a taster session or an extended programme of outdoor healthy activities.Groundwork North East  Play Service provides open access inclusive play sessions for children and young people. The sessions provide a variety of opportunities for children to engage in “real” play .Activities including arts and crafts, games, sports and messy play. Children have learnt new skills and an understanding of the importance of wildlife and woodlands in everyday life. Physical activity is also key to play sessions using the outdoors as a way to “let off steam” to run around and take advantage of wide open space, encouraging children to become more active and learn new games and activities which they can do in their own time outside of Groundwork provision.
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 From Blue to Green: The Tees Valley Wildlife Trust (TVWT) is scientifically evaluating the mental health and well-being impacts to people who take part in inclusive volunteering opportunities on the Trust’s nature reserves. Social inclusion has always been at the heart of the Trust’s work. For many years, the Trust has successfully run an Inclusive Volunteering project, working with mixed groups of people, both those suffering with poor mental health and others unaffected.  Thanks to Northern Rock Foundation and Dame Mary Smieton Funding the Trust has been able to develop a programme to collect data from volunteers using a series of well-being scales and in-depth interviews. The evaluation has discovered that as well as improving the natural environment of the Tees Valley this project is providing positive social experiences for volunteers, improving their skills, confidence and self esteem, as well as finding that many volunteers benefit from the unique balance of structure and freedom in this context. In addition, after reviewing the vast array of research methods available to assess well-being, the Trust has developed an original, valid and reliable measurement tool tailored to the context and activity of nature conservation volunteering. The Trust is currently in the process of discussing findings with health service commissioners and working towards a model by which Wildlife Trusts could increase their capacity for conservation volunteering and contribute to the delivery of mental health services as funded community-based service providers.

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Walking for health in the Tees Valley: England’s Walking for Health programme has over the last decade grown into a nationwide network of health walk schemes across England, offering regular short walks over easy terrain with trained walk leaders that encourages more people to become physically active in their local communities.  There are successful locally run health walks programmes across the Tees Valley involving partners from the health and environmental sectors.  Current schemes include Healthy Stepping in Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland, Stepping out in Stockton, Darlington  Doorstop Walks, and  Walk about in Hartlepool.

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