Green Gym by the Conservation Volunteers
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Green Gyms work to mobilise communities to come together, and become active whilst improving their local area at the same time. They work to transform people’s health and wellbeing through weekly participation in outdoor activities, for example conservation, park management or food growing. The Green Gym concept was created by TCV and Dr William Bird with the original model piloted in 1997. The demand for Green Gyms is growing with more launching each year especially in urban centres such as London where Green Gym has grown by 500 per cent since 2011.

What CSAIF funded: TCV were awarded £515,000, including £25,000 for an impact evaluation. The funding was for TCV to create a dedicated Green Gym business unit within the organisation, to help the model scale. View the full impact evaluation.

About the evaluation

Level on Standards: Level 2 - they have captured data that shows positive change, but cannot confirm they caused this

Evaluator: NEF Consulting and the Green Gym Research Team

Aim: The evaluation of Green Gym aimed to find out the impact of outdoor community activities on participants’ health, wellbeing and employability

Key findings:

  1. Individuals attending Green Gym reported that they experienced improved physical and mental health, through quantitative data and qualitative data.
  2. Participating in Green Gym increases physical activity levels and supports the development of food skills, providing the tools to improve diet and nutrition as well as having a positive effect on self-esteem and the confidence to do so. The evaluation also found that for mental health, the most effective route to impact was reducing social isolation by increasing opportunities for people to work together – outdoors – in worthwhile activities.

Methodology: Green Gym used a mixed method approach. A short questionnaire survey was collected once a month – for three months (December 2015, January and February 2016) alongside a series of single and paired (before and after) qualitative interviews with volunteers and qualitative interviews with referral partners.

92 participants filled in the baseline survey. Of these, 80 individuals completed a further follow-up in January 2016, and 79 completed a second follow-up in February 2016. There were 13 dropouts. 24 participants were utilised for 18 semi-structured interviews.

Why this Level: This evaluation qualifies for Level 2 as it shows a positive change over time in key outcomes, using appropriate tools. The biggest limitation is that for all but 10 of the participants the baseline data is not ‘true’ baseline data – these participants were already Green Gym members, and so were asked when filling in their survey to think back to how they felt before joining their Green Gym. But this limitation is sufficiently mitigated by a) the 10 participants who do have full pre-post data and who show very similar results to the remainder, and b) the wealth of qualitative data that has been analysed systematically and supports the case for positive impact.

About the evidence journey

Progress: Green Gym has previous evaluations that show similar improvement in wellbeing. However, they were significantly weakened by methodological issues such as low response rate, high attrition rate, use of untested or non-standardised tools and/or a focus on a single Green Gym project or geographical area. As such, there was little confidence that the findings were representative.

This evaluation has advanced Green Gym from Level 1 to Level 2 on the Standards of Evidence by making major improvements to response rate, attrition levels, inclusion of multiple Green Gyms covering a wide geographic area and the use of validated, standardised tools. The new Research Team (the first Green Gym insight function) has been instrumental in setting up the tools, processes and learning for Green Gym to continue to collect impact data sustainably going forward.

Lessons learned: Green Gym is an inclusive project, designed to suit volunteers with a wide range of needs. A proportion of volunteers taking part in the evaluation required significant support to do so; this included, but was not exclusive to, volunteers with mild to moderate learning difficulties, volunteers with mental health needs and those with poor literacy and/or comprehension and a general lack of confidence.

In response to this, a far higher proportion of support sessions (than anticipated) were delivered. Resource limitations (we are a team of two) restricted our ability to offer this support as widely as we would have liked.

Moving forward, to further support volunteers with emotional, learning or communication difficulties - we are developing a more visual and tangible approach to data collection, allowing volunteers to reflect on their journey and consider how Green Gym can continue to aid their progress.

Next steps: A new research strategy is underpinning the delivery of a systematic and comprehensive approach to monitoring and evaluation and volunteer insight. This will put in place a set of core measures to capture behavioural and health outcomes, data collection processes and information governance policies that will be used systematically and comprehensively across all Green Gyms. This systematic monitoring and evaluation process will enable us to continue to explore and understand the difference Green Gym makes to individuals, communities and green spaces.

As part of the new research strategy, we will carry out a diagnostic process to review what support is required to embed new insight and research processes across all Green Gyms.