Prevention at scale: health & wellbeing through Dorset’s natural environment

Maria Clarke, Dorset LNP Manager

There is a growing evidence nationally and an increased understanding locally of the benefits of using Dorset’s natural environment to support and improve health and wellbeing.  Being in and connecting to the natural world can increase your vitamin D levels (boosting your immune system as well as supporting strong bones), it can boost your mood, increase a sense of calm, reduce your blood pressure and get you physically active.  

There are so many opportunities to get outside in our beautiful county whether it’s for a bike ride, a gentle walk or more active hike, or maybe a swim or a paddle.  These can be done within a wide range of spaces such as a local park, a rural path through fields, by/in the sea or river, a nature reserve or even your garden. 

The Our Dorset Integrated Care System (ICS) (a partnership of health and social care organisations) launched in 2018 is in the first wave of developing these nationally.  Prevention at Scale is the ICS’s system-wide approach to helping people stay well and as part of this ‘Healthy Places’ is a key component of prevention at scale which includes the focus on increasing access to natural environments.

There are strong partnerships between the health and the environment sectors across the county including programmes such as Natural Choices, Stepping into Nature and promotion through Picnic in the Parks.

Natural Choices (facilitated by Dorset LNP) brings together over 25 providers across the county offering more than 60 nature-based wellbeing activities.  From Park Yoga to conservation volunteering, gardening to Walking for Health and mindfulness to photography walks, these activities are open to everyone over 18 to support their wellbeing.  All the activities are linked into the LiveWell Dorset Activity Finder (LiveWell Dorset is commissioned by Public Health Dorset) to promote to the public and to enable health coaches and social prescribers to find out about and signpost to the activities. 

Stepping into Nature, which works alongside Natural Choices, is aimed at people who may need additional support to connect with nature such as older people with limited mobility or those living with dementia and the carers.  This National Lottery Community Fund supported project (led by Dorset) has run for the last three years within the Dorset AONB and has been awarded funding to expand beyond the AONB area over the next three years.  Activities include sensory walks, poetry walks, history walks, art activities inspired by nature, and forest school activities – all of which are dementia friendly.

Working with Active Dorset (and their Active Ageing programme), Dorset LNP, Dorset AONB and Public Health Dorset have hosted a series of Picnic in the Park: living well, loving nature events.  The events aim to promote wellbeing through taster sessions, music and information stalls.  Beginning in Dorchester in 2018, working with Dorchester Town Council, the events have now been held in Blandford, Bournemouth, Swanage, Weymouth, and Wimborne.  Further sessions are being rolled out across Dorset in 2020.

Building on this existing partnership working and with so much positive action in supporting health and wellbeing through the natural environment, stronger collaborative working is being sought to embed nature-based wellbeing into the health system.  A workshop was held in November 2019 bringing stakeholders from health and environmental organisations together to scope out how we can strengthen the existing collaborations.  Funding from the National Lottery Community Fund has been granted to help develop stronger collaboration during 2020 and beyond.  Further funding is being sought to take this even further.

The natural environment offers a positive opportunity to support and enhance health and wellbeing within the county, helping to deliver both the national 25 Year Environment Plan (Defra) and Health Prevention in the 2020s (Dept for Health and Social Care) as well as local health and environmental priorities.  The majority of us have of access to some sort a natural space so by working together we can make a difference to population health.