The Physical Benefits of Foraging

Foraging is a fantastic way to improve the physical fitness of you and your family. For children in particular, physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle that reduces the risks of major illnesses in later life.

Exercise for Children and Young People

According to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, there's loads of evidence that shows how exercise is an important key to reducing our risk of major illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Research also shows that regular physical activity can boost our self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, making us less prone to stress, depression and dementia. However, because of our modern sedentary lifestyles and an increasing reliance on technology, we are less active nowadays, both as adults and as children. Research indicates that inactive children are likely to become inactive adults, putting young people at risk of developing life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and cancer. This is why it's important to encourage exercise and physical activity from a young age.

Regular exercise has lots of health benefits for children and young people, such as:  

  • Improving fitness
  • Providing an opportunity to socialise
  • Increasing concentration
  • Improving academic scores
  • Building a stronger heart, bones and healthier muscles
  • Encouraging healthy growth and development
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Improving posture and balance
  • Lowering stress
  • Encouraging a better night's sleep      

Foraging as a Physical Activity

Children under five who are walking by themsleves should be active for at least 180 minutes (three hours) a day. Physical activity can be unstructured active play or structured exercise of varying intensities, that also include developing movement skills, such as balance and co-ordination. Activities such as walking, running or playing, climbing, or obstacle courses are all recommended for this age range, and all of these can certainly be performed whilst out on a forage! For adults, foraging is not often a strenuous physical activity - mostly a slow purposeful walk - for younger children however, a forage is a wild adventure playground, filled with natural climbing frames, swing bars, running tracks, paddling pools and gymnastic equipment at every turn - a treasure trove of exciting physical activity. Athur loves nothing more than taking a break from discovering plants and mushrooms to engage in tree climbing, playing chase, and using logs as obstacle courses, as well as playing pooh-sticks, puddle jumping, throwing leaves, doing roly-polies or stomping around like a T-Rex!

Children and young people aged 5-18 should take part in moderate to vigorous physical activities for at least 60 minutes (one hour) every day, but this can be up to several hours. Moderate intensity activity means working hard enough to raise your heartbeat, so you breathe harder and begin to sweat, but are still able to talk, whereas vigorous activity includes much higher intensity activities, such as running, swimming or playing sports. Whilst foraging could fulfil at least some of the moderate intensity activity needed, older children will likely also have to include some additional physical activities outside of foraging, as part of a health lifestyle.

Having Fun Whilst Foraging

It's really important that foraging be fun for kids, and whilst they can really get into plants and mushrooms, they will often become bored after a little while and want to engage in other fun stuff. This is completely normal behaviour! According to some studies, the average attention span for a child is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child's age. Therefore, a 3-year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular task for at least 9 minutes, and a child just entering school should be able to concentrate for at least 15 minutes. Children with conditions such as ADHD, will likely be able to concentrate on a single activity for less time. It's therefore a good idea to break-up our foraging time with our children, interspersing identification and gathering, with other fun activities to ensure they don't become bored. A good starting point is 10-15 minutes of foraging, followed by 10-15 minutes of play, which allows plenty of time for both learning and exercise, whilst still enjoying the outdoors.

When children do become bored, it can sometimes be difficult for us to pull ourselves away from what we are doing, but this really is the point at which we need to put our field guides away for a while, and let them have some outdoor fun. If we don't, they may start to associate foraging with boredom, and won't be as engaged with it as they could be. When you're sat next to a beautiful mushroom watching them frolicking in the trees like chimpanzees, don't be dismayed - think of it simply as a much needed cooling-off period (for their brain at least!) - before they come back, all refreshed and ready to carry on learning again. Or even better, go and climb the tree with them and release that inner-toddler that lives inside you - the mushroom will still be there when you get back! I am often amazed (and more than a little dismayed!) at how much energy Arthur has! He's a little machine, often rising at 07:30 and not stopping (at all) until bedtime. That energy needs to be burned-off somewhere, and I do feel a sense of happiness and pride that he prefers to expend it having fun in the great outdoors, rather than in his bedroom at home or in front of the telly.

Exercise & The Brain

Recent studies have shown that regular exercise has a profound influence on the physical structure of our brains – an influence that can protect and preserve brain health and function throughout life. In fact, some experts believe that the human brain may depend on regular physical activity to function optimally throughout our lifetime, with positive effects occuring in our neural blood supply, the level of natural inflammation we experience as we age, as well as our memory.

Many studies suggest that exercise can help protect our memory as we age. This is because exercise has been shown to prevent the loss of total brain volume (which can lead to lower cognitive function), as well as preventing shrinkage in specific brain regions associated with memory. For example, one Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan study revealed that in older adults, six months of exercise training increased brain volume, and another study showed that shrinkage of the hippocampus (a brain region essential for learning and memory) in older people can be reversed by regular walking. This change was accompanied by improved memory function and an increase of important brain proteins in the bloodstream. Additionally, another study showed that the growth of new blood vessels in the brain can also be encouraged by regular exercise, which provides the increased blood supply needed for the development of new neurons. Exercise also improves the health and function of existing blood vessels, ensuring that brain tissue consistently receives adequate blood supply to meet its needs and preserve its healthy functioning. Finally, as we age, our immune system naturally declines, which causes low-level inflammation to occur in our organs, including our brain. This inflammation increases the risk of neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s. Regular exercise however, has been shown to counteract the neuroinflammatory changes that impair brain function, which helps to prevent these conditions.

As a form of regular exercise, foraging can therefore help to improve memory, improve brain function and help to prevent the developemnt of neurodegenerative diseases.

Further Information

Exercise and the Brain