If you go down to the woods today … you can be sure of a rigorous aerobic workout?

The modern world, built for human’s convenience, isn’t always geared for human comfort. Our ancestors traded the sporty exertions of hunting and gathering for repetitive strain injury, back aches and obesity.

So we waddle off to the gym, fork over a bundle of money and toil on a treadmill under neon lights. Yet grim New Year’s determination has faded by March for more than half of exercisers. Not so for devotees of the Green Gym, who just knuckle down for more conservation work.

The programme, based in South Oxfordshire’s Sonning Common, boasts a low-drop out rate; over 70 per cent of original participants still turn up to lay hedges, fell trees and build dry stone walls twice a week. It’s a regime Mother would approve of: fresh air, comradeship, improving the environment and oneself.

Brownie points aside, the Green Gym can offer a fiercer workout than its conventional counterpart. A study by Oxford Brookes University suggests that an eco-session quickly outstrips aerobic class.

For example, a 40-year-old woman was asked to fell trees on a hillside and pile them into a bonfire. “Her heart rate clearly showed she worked harder than in step aerobics,” explains research assistant Veronica Reynolds. “She burned 392 calories in the Green Gym compared with 306 in aerobics. Other tests indicated increased grip strength – a key to independence in old age – and possible benefits to mental health as well.”

After three years, the project is running strong. Originally the brainchild of local GP William Bird and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BCTV), the Green Gym is now run by its members.

They gathered on a damp Spring morning last week, when the low grey sky scraped muddy earth. Undaunted, they pulled on woolly caps and waterproofs, a far cry from the spandex scanties of the leotard set.

The group met in Blackhouse Wood, a tiny patch of ancient trees straddling the Oxfordshire and Berkshire border. After stretching and a brief safety talk, nine members confidently seized saws and clippers, disappeared into the hazel stands.

“Today we’re creating a glade in the wood and putting up dead hedges,” says Jules Thompson, the group’s secretary. “The idea is to channel people walking onto footpaths, so wildlife can prosper in the guarded area.”

The pace was pleasant and relaxed, as members chattered across piles of scrub. This is one of the main draws for Peter Warrick, who is turning 66, of Sonning Common.

He is the charmer, the clown, so his admission of depression is surprising. Peter joined for the camaraderie, rather than to feel the burn. “Wandering around teasing people means a lot to me,” he grins. “This is a lovely group of people. In three years, I’ve never heard a cross word here. Not many other groups or clubs could say the same thing.”

This sentiment, this contentedness is echoed by the other members. Ian Ayres, a 35-year-old from Reading, also wards off gloom in the woods. He escaped computer-programming after ten “mind-numbing” years, then found himself jobless and listless.

“My gym membership expired – it was a bit boring anyway. So I decided to try this,” he says. “I find chopping and sawing very therapeutic. I’m a bit of a nightmare, practical-wise, but it’s getting better. So is my stamina.”

Jules, of Rotherfield Greys, agrees: “Gyms are boring and isolating, full of headsets and concentration. That’s why there’s such a high dropout rate. This is more interesting and satisfying. People talk as they work.

“There’s a good feeling from being in the open air, around green and natural things. Scientists call this phenomenon biophilia.”

Jules turned to the Green Gym following a course of radiotherapy. At first, he struggled to walk up a hill, now the 61-year-old glides about. “I’m one of the people with medical problems,” he says. “Physically, I’m much more mobile now. I can move around, twist about. I’m more comfortable driving a car than before and can work in awkward places, like fixing plumbing under a sink.

“I won’t become a Lindford Christie or loose enormous amounts of weight,” he chuckles, “but it’s good to get out, have companionship, satisfaction from work well-done and physical well-being.”

That work varies wildly; building stiles, restoring chalk downs, clearing bracken, path restoration and hedging. Member Julia Booker admits these tasks can lead to moments of, shall we say, minimised dignity.

“At Aston Rowant they have a flock of sheep to crop areas. One of our tasks was to help move the sheep and baby lambs to a new pasture.

“The sheep more or less knew where to go, but the lambs shot around everywhere – they were idiotic, really. We were running all over the hills trying to herd them. Finally we had to tuck a lamb under each arm and march down.”

Another time saw the group arrayed in a circle, stretching alongside the M40. “We must have looked like a Druidic sect,” Julia laughs. “I’m surprised we didn’t cause an accident.”

But the moments of warm sociability are far more common, when members gather around a bonfire loaded with potatoes, or mischievously force excessive buns and coffee on visiting journalists. They laugh easily and often, despite coming from wildly varied backgrounds.

Julia, 52, was once an export executive specialising in South America and is now “nominally” a housewife in Rotherfield Greys. “I went to aerobics once and said ‘never again’. I can’t even think about exercise machines – that’s like being a hamster in a cage,” she says.

“At first, I literally couldn’t even saw, now they joke about me felling trees.” She is, in fact, rasping away at thin trunk as we speak. “I can really feel my heart pounding,” she comments, though her voice is clear and unwinded.

“I have a lot more energy and stamina – strength to lift shopping, haul furniture, to just keep going. Also, I’ve learned how to put in fencing posts from scratch – that should come in handy. I may put in a hedge using some of these techniques as well, like seeding local species.

It’s all elbow grease and determination, which Julia prefers to Chainsaw shortcuts: “Digging into a chalk hillside is very hard work, when done with no mechanical tools. That’s the way it’s been done for centuries, though. It’s nice to be part of that tradition.”

Like the others, she is nonplussed by the damp and sticky clumps of leaf and mud. Experiencing the weather – the seasons – is part of the charm. Jules explains: “We’ve been out in absolutely foul weather, but in two years we’ve only been rained off once. We meet on Thursday and Saturday mornings all through the year, except two weeks at Christmas. That’s 100 sessions a year. Not many conservation groups are that active.”

With luck, more Green Gyms will sprout up. Already one is forming in Portslade, Brighton and healthcare experts’ enthusiasm has “bowled over” BCTV.

And perhaps the idea – so obvious, so simple, almost primitive – will catch on: just the thing for the Modern Stone Age family.

Reprinted with permission from the Oxford Times, 2000