A slog on a treadmill in a sweaty gym isn’t the only way to get fit. Debbie Waite reports on Green Gyms and their happy members

FIFTEEN years ago, Oxfordshire GP Dr William Bird decided to do something drastic to encourage some of his patients to exercise.

Dr Bird, 51, explained: “I had patients aged between 50 and 90 with conditions ranging from hypertension and diabetes to depression, who needed to exercise and who would clearly benefit from it, but who didn’t really want to do sporting activities or go to a gym. Being outside however, was a really positive thing for them, and so the Green Gym began.”

The Green Gym would encourage patients to engage in physical activity, by involving them in light conservation work in their local communities.

The first was set up in Sonning Common in 1998, but 15 years later there are groups in Abingdon, Bicester, Wallingford, Woodstock and Chipping Norton.

Dr Bird said: “The first session took place with a mix of old people, frail people, people with mental health issues and many different health conditions.

“We did a health study when the group was up and running and put a heart monitor on a lady who regularly did aerobics.

“She was astounded when we showed her that while her aerobics session had given her 25 minutes of cardiovascular work-out, her cardiovascular work in Green Gym had actually lasted five times longer. “ Since the first began, Green Gyms have sprung up all over the world, with six more across the county, around 100 others across the UK and some as far as Australia.

Barry and Enid Reeve, both 85, joined the Abingdon Green Gym after moving to a smaller house in the town and losing their large garden.

Mr Reeve had a heart attack four years ago and says the Green Gym is helping him stay fit and active.

He said: “I’ve no doubt that Green Gym is good for people and I’d recommend it to anyone. We found out about it after we saw work being carried out down on the Ock valley.

“When we did an internet search the Green Gym details came up, we went along and were hooked.

“We missed our garden when we moved to a townhouse, but now we can be working on a fen one weekend and a fishpond the next.

“It’s a great way to meet people and stay fit.”

Co-ordinator of the Abingdon group, Eleanor Dangerfield, 65, said: “After a session you feel good and definitely like you have exercised. But you also have the pleasure of seeing something like a new woodchip path, like the one we laid recently at the Ock Path, or even some new trees.”

Father-of-three Dr Bird lives in Sonning Common and practises as a GP in Reading.

In 2009 he was also voted by the Independent on Sunday as one of the top 100 people in the UK to make people happy – which makes him laugh.

He said: “You wonder who the judges were.

“But seriously, I feel my part in all this was quite small; getting the people together and starting things off.

“It’s the people who turn out every week, helping their environment, while improving their health who deserve the credit.”


Wallingford Green Gym meets on Tuesday mornings at sites ranging from the water meadows by the Thames, to woodland in the Chilterns.

Coordinator Jennifer Brooker, 54, is a ‘professed religious’ in the Church of England – which is rather like a nun who has not taken orders.

She said: “I went to the Green Gym with my son Michael, 10 years ago when the wheat we were charged with clearing in Wallingford Castle Meadow was actually taller than him.

“We’re a small group: about 15 of us in total and we range from over-70s to a three-year-old who was very proud to hold screws while one of our adult volunteers was fixing a gatepost.”
Find your nearest Green Gym at the website tcv.org.uk