It sounds like work, but for Heath Hands its gloriously therapeutic

by Bobby de Joia of Heath Hands The benefits of working outdoors are many – as volunteers on the Heath have found over the years The whole point of Heath Hands is to provide volunteer support staff to enhance the workforce on Hampstead Heath. But the spin-off benefit for the volunteer

The benefits of working outdoors are many - as volunteers on the Heath have found over the years

The whole point of Heath Hands is to provide volunteer support staff to enhance the workforce on Hampstead Heath. But the spin-off benefit for the volunteers themselves almost eclipses the benefits to the Heath. At least that is the way it looks to us sometimes.

Of course the benefits described by our members add up to anecdotal evidence at best. But there is such a body of it now, it seems like to a good time to explore the notions that:

o Outdoor work is therapeutic and


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o Heath Hands volunteers are engaged in activity as beneficial as any other outdoor activity on Hampstead Heath - whether it is walking, swimming or team sports.

Many of our members refer to their volunteer work as a "life saver", referring to the benefits to themselves, not the Heath. Gardening has long been considered therapeutic and there are now organisations devoted to introducing gardening to help solve a range of emotional problems.

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Surveys of our members invariably show that the feel-good factor is an important part of volunteering. When asked to explain, they list the opportunity to work outdoors, to meet new people (many new friendships have developed), to develop skill and confidence in using hand tools, and the knowledge that they are giving something back.

Some members tell us that they had been suffering from varying degrees of depression or anxieties of one kind or another, with symptoms disappearing after a few weeks of work on the Heath. Was it the work itself? New friends? New skills? Fresh air? Could it be that Heath Hands is actually therapeutic?

So we asked one of our longest-serving members, psychotherapist Dr Heather Allan, how she sees the benefits of volunteering on Hampstead Heath. Her story is similar to others.

She started working with Heath Hands in 1999 when 22 new volunteers met to reintroduce heather to the East Heath. Working as an efficient team, they managed to plant 5,000 heather seedlings in less than three hours. "It was exhilarating," she recalls. "The more time I was able to give, the more energetic I felt."

But when new responsibilities piled up, she dropped regular work on the Heath, only to regret it later. So what was she missing and why?

"It was all the things that other members noted gives them a lift," she says. "It was spending more time on the Heath I love, plus camaraderie and, of course, a change from what I had been doing at home or at work. But it was even more. It was a complete escape from stress. I look at it this way and this is what makes Heath Hands so rewarding for me.

"It is so well organised that all I have to do is turn up for the sessions for which I have time and which appeal to me. For example, I just love bashing bramble. Just enough physical activity, with a minimum amount of thinking. Someone says, 'Bash,' so I bash. Then someone says, 'Stop for coffee and a biscuit and I do.' Then someone says, 'Let's move on to collecting up the tools' or whatever and there I am with no worries about what to do next.

"In other words, just doing what I'm told after a lifetime of reasoning why is such a relief. To side-step responsibility and put one's back into something backs are made for - not only metaphorical burdens - oh, it's a joy for heart and mind.

"It is also lovely to have clear and kindly direction. Supervisors know how to make every volunteer feel that their contribution is valued."

If you would like to join Heath Hands to discover the joys of working on Hampstead Heath, contact the organisation on

020-8458 9102 or email us at info@heath-hands.org.uk. The Heath Hands headquarters at West Lodge Kenwood is open from 9.30am on weekdays.

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