Inspiring active outdoor lives

In response to the government's new Sport Strategy, Dr John Allan raises the flag for outdoor activities and calls for greater collaboration between practitioners and policy makers.

Amid the nation’s on-going recovery from Covid-19, Sport England’s Active Lives surveys for adults and young people have reported a return to pre-pandemic levels of physical activity which meet the daily recommended guidelines of the Chief Medical Officer.

While this headline data is positive, physical literacy levels, which are linked to higher levels of activity and psychological wellbeing, have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and remain a significant area of concern across the population. For example, women’s activity levels have recovered slower in comparison to men’s, and the long-term decline in young people’s participation in sport and physical activity continues. Further, the least affluent in our society are less likely to be active and inequalities between the physical activity levels of some minority ethnic groups have widened.

'Get Active'

To promote a happier and more prosperous nation in the long-term, the government have just published its new Sport Strategy. ‘Get Active’ introduces ambitious national participation targets for children and adults. To spearhead this policy directive, a new National Physical Activity Task Force will bring together government departments and representatives from the sector to work together, review progress and shape policy development.

Universally welcomed across established institutions such as Sport England and the Youth Sports Trust, this strategy will require significant and sustained commitment in the public, private and third sectors, supported by a comprehensive delivery plan. Sport England have also released a consensus statement on the importance of physical literacy as a guiding principle to develop the well-being of our nation at both local and national levels.

As an academic and outdoor adventure practitioner, I believe outdoor activities have a vital part to play in the successful delivery of national policy in physical activity, health and well-being.

A wealth of research contends that nature-based physical activity has positive impacts on both mental and physical health. Outdoor activities increase motivation and create opportunities for social contact, as well as improving cardiac health, lowering high blood pressure, restoring mental fatigue and generating brain growth. A recent report by the British Medical Council states that access to local green spaces increases the probability that people will achieve the recommended physical activity guidelines by over four times.

Whether individuals access green exercise in their localities, school grounds or on a broader outdoor residential experience, physical activity in nature and the feeling of being part of something bigger than us enhances our mood, health, and wellbeing. We all know the huge difference that getting outdoors makes to our sense of freedom, an awareness crystallised by the pandemic lockdowns.

That feeling of authentic connection with the environment and immersion in nature gives us a unique chance to relax and gain perspective.

Physical literacy across the lifespan

I am Head of Impact & Learning at Inspiring Learning, a leading UK provider of outdoor adventure education. Our portfolio ranges from children’s holiday day camps and bespoke residential trips to employee development and whole-team customer service training and apprenticeships.

For a diversity of learners, our mission is to unlock potential in every individual by enabling the acquisition of positive, adaptive skill sets which supports their well-being, employability and social mobility. Central to achieving this outcome is building their physical literacy through the medium of first-hand outdoor experiential learning.

Research suggests that physical exposure to changeable, multi-sensory environments helps us to perform better across a range of physical and cognitive tasks, as opposed to experiencing predictable, uni-sensory environments.

This includes connecting better with others and our surroundings, broader motor skill acquisition, enhanced creative thinking and problem-solving capabilities. Due to the intensity and meaningfulness of these experiences, this learning can be long lasting and transferable to work-based and academic settings.

Working with our academic partners at Sheffield Hallam University, we are presently validating the efficacy of our programmes in building such skill sets. This enables us to incorporate evidence-based practices to underpin and inform our provision. You can read more about this in the NCST Skills4Life Impact Analysis report.

We are stronger together

We are keen to work collaboratively with organisations within and beyond the outdoors to help build a physically literate population across the lifespan. For example, we fully support the initiatives of our fellow advocates The Outward Bound Trust in their ‘Let Us Out’ campaign to enable every young person in the UK to experience an outdoor residential.

At a time of increasingly sedentary and online lifestyles, and when poor mental health is on the increase, we endorse our charity partner, Youth Sport Trust, in their call for schools to give Physical Education a much greater role in supporting young people in their development.

We are also in talks with British Fencing and the International Physical Literacy Association in a joint quest to research, facilitate and support the adoption and promotion of resilience and physical literacy across communities.

We currently live in a world which resembles a moving target. Therefore, any expansive strategy establishing benchmarks for active habits for life requires a combined effort between relevant partners, both locally and nationally, to ensure it is resilient and impactful.

Physical activity in natural spaces has been posited as a fundamental well-being facilitator because the presence of nature augments the benefits of exercise and pro-environmental behaviours while enabling motivation and adherence.

We stand ready to engage in dialogue with practitioners and policy makers for raising awareness, empowering more people to be active, and designing and implementing outdoor-based physical activity initiatives and interventions.

These approaches need to be underpinned by evidence-based principles to avoid inefficient and ill-targeted investment and to maximise the likelihood of a coherent wider policy implementation and outcome.

Dr John Allan, SFHEA

Head of Impact and Learning, Inspiring Learning

Visiting Fellow, Institute of Education and Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University