Health Sciences Research>Cardiovascular Health and Ageing>Centre for Outdoor Activity and Leisure (COAL)
Centre for Outdoor Activity and Leisure Research

Centre for Outdoor Activity and Leisure research (COAL)

​COAL is located within the Department of Applied Psychology and works collaboratively with other Cardiff Met Schools and external stakeholders. The purpose of COAL is to evaluate and understand the role that the outdoors, volunteering and purposeful leisure may play in enhancing health and well-being. Within this remit we are interested in how people connect with nature, the role animals might play, the therapeutic potential of green spaces, green exercise and other green interventions (such as care farms, animal assisted programmes and green exercise).


Research Areas

Below are selected examples of funded projects which illustrate the type of research areas COAL engages with.


Pedal Power - Evaluation of 'Changing Gear' Lottery funded project 

Pedal Power COALThis research explored the experience of engaging in ‘green exercise’ via a short course, aimed at introducing individuals to the benefits of cycling.  The target audience were those who would not usually cycle or exercise, and specifically focused on the following groups: women from black minority backgrounds; those with mental health issues people, with long-term health conditions and older people.  Many of the barriers to cycling such as cost, access to bicycles and a lack experience, are addressed by the project in the hope of encouraging participants to make a longer-term commitment to improving their health and wellbeing.  The evaluation consisted of interviews with participants about their experiences of the intervention and the benefits and challenges of being involved. Click here for a summary of the project.


Gofal - Evaluation of GreenAge older persons befriending and well-being service

This evaluation was a service for older people which incorporated expertise in mental health and horticulture to produce an Gofal GreenAge COALinnovative way of delivering befriending services. Volunteers typically visited individuals in their homes and helped them with gardening-related tasks. The project also took place in residential care home settings. It provided opportunities for participants and volunteers alike to be involved in horticultural activities together, and aimed to improve well-being and reduce social isolation amongst older people in Cardiff. We conducted research which captured the experiences of both volunteers working on the project and the beneficiaries of the service. Measures were also used to ascertain the benefits of volunteering in this context. Click here for a poster summary or download our Evaluation Summary.


Waterloo Foundation - The functions of benefits of volunteering in a Care Farm setting

Waterloo Foundation Care farm COALThis project comes under the auspices of 'Green Care', specifically within a Care Farm setting (Care Farming is defined by Care Farming UK as the "therapeutics use of farming practices". They provide health, social or educational care services for individuals from one or a range of vulnerable groups). This research took place in three different care farms and sought to measure the functions of volunteering in this setting, the differences in motivations for volunteers who chose to work inside or outside this setting, university students' perceptions of working on an organic farming project with vulnerable adults and how individuals talked about their experiences of being volunteers on care farms. Click here for  a printable flyer that explains the benefits of Care Farms.


National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR) - Growing a Healthy Population in Wales (GHOP)

This research considered the role that an outdoor activity can play in healthGHOP COALy ageing through a three month mixed methods evaluation study. Older allotment gardeners and community gardeners completed psychological and physiological health measures. Improvements in participants' body mass index, hand-grip strength, perceived stress levels and self-esteem were found when compared with a wait-list control.

Participants also kept diaries which informed follow-up interviews exploring experiences of being a newcomer to allotment gardening. Findings indicated that even during the first couple of years of having an allotment, this leisure pursuit can have significant benefits. For example, participants discussed the importance of regular social interaction at the site, and the sense of achievement and satisfaction that arises from their activity. For more information, click to see our summary report and poster.


Beacons for Wales funded public engagement project - Our place in the future: What 'works' in a care farm environment with excluded young people?

Beacons COALIn this project, we working collaboratively with a Care Farm to raise public awareness of the work done. Young people who had been excluded from mainstream education used flip cameras to capture their accounts of the alternative curriculum they were following on the farm. The project also culminated in the first All Wales Cre Farm Conference, which brought together academics and practitioners to discuss the challenges and outcomes of providing robust evidence for this sector.


Multi-disciplinary evaluation of exercise programmes

Our group has a track record in evaluating the cardiovascular benefits accruing from different exercise programmes using a range of biochemical tests and physical measures of cardiovascular health. Our research has shown that green exercise in previously sedentary individuals improved biomarkers of cardiovascular risk, vascular haemodynamics, arterial stiffness and mental health. Evaluation of different community-based exercise programmes (including Wales National Exercise Referral Scheme-delivered and Valleys Regional Park-facilitated outdoor exercise programmes) demonstrated numerous beneficial effects of exercise on cardiovascular health. We have also shown that circulating levels of the soluble interleukin-6 receptor (sIL-6R) are linked to vascular ageing, high levels of stress, depressed mood and a pre-disposition to symptoms of upper respiratory tract illness in endurance athletes (collaborative research with Sport Wales, tracking squads of elite endurance athletes over 4 month training periods).


Group Members

COAL Dr Debbie Clayton Dr Jenny Mercer 

COAL is led by Dr Debbie Clayton (left) and Dr Jenny Mercer (right), Principal Lecturers, Department of Applied Psychology.


Head of Department (Biomedical Sciences)
Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences (Vascular Physiology)




We work collaboratively with other members of staff both internally and externally depending on the requirements of each project. This allows us to draw on a range of expertise in relation to research methods and topic-specific knowledge.



Dr Nicola Bowes, Department of Applied Psychology, Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences

Dr Clare Glennan, Department of Applied Psychology, Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences

Dr Karianne Backx, Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences

Dr Michael G Hughes, Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences

Dr Katie Thirlaway, Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences



Dr Jemma Hawkins, Cardiff University

Professor Paul Milbourne, Cardiff University

Lorraine Brown, Care Farming UK

Dr Kate Hamilton, Actif Woods Wales

Robert Sage, Public Health Wales

Dr David Llewellyn, University of South Wales

Jeannie Wyatt-Williams, Wales National Exercise Referral Scheme

Brian Davies, Sport Wales

Glenn Little, Age Cymru


Key Publications

Whiteman-Sandland J., Hawkins J., Clayton D. The role of social capital and community belongingness for exercise adherence: An exploratory study of the CrossFit gym model.  J Health Psychol. 2016 Aug 23 [Epub ahead of print].

Mercer J., Gibson K., Clayton D. The therapeutic potential of a prison-based animal programme in the UK.  Journal of Forensic Practice. 2015; 17: 43-54.

Hawkins JL., Smith A., Backx K., Clayton DA. Exercise intensities of gardening tasks within older adult gardeners in Wales.  2015 Apr; 23 (20): 161-8.

Hawkins JL., Mercer J., Thirlaway K., Clayton DA. 'Doing' gardening and 'being' at the allotment site: Exploring the benefits of allotment gardening for stress reduction and healthy ageing. Ecopsychology. 2013; 5: 110-125.

Webb R., Thompson JES., Ruffino JS., Davies NA., Watkeys L., Hooper S., Jones PM, Walters G., Clayton D., Thomas AW., Morris K., Llewellyn DH., Ward M., Wyatt-Williams J., McDonnell BJ. Evaluation of cardiovascular risk-lowering health benefits accruing from laboratory-based, community-based and exercise-referral exercise programmes. BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine. 2016 Mar; 2 (1).