NORTHWICH man Simon Birdsey is planning a big personal achievement in July - he will be involved in the Northwich Festival of Running.

For many, this would be a normal way to stay fit.

For Simon it will be much more than that because the 42-year-old suffers from agoraphobia and a panic disorder and the idea of doing such a thing in the past would have been unthinkable.

Simon is taking part in the event on July 8 for the second year in a row after his mental health improved partly down to the Natural Health Service, which was developed by the Mersey Forest to improve residents’ health and wellbeing using the great outdoors.

Simon said: “A therapist recommended that I try and regularly do things that I find uncomfortable and to stay in those situations until I felt myself relaxing. So, when I first heard about the Natural Health Service I immediately wanted to find out more.”

Five courses are offered: Health Walks, Gardening for All, Mindful Contact with Nature, Forest School and Healthy Conservation.

Simon completed the 10-week Mindful Contact with Nature programme at Marbury Country Park, Northwich. It involved people connecting with nature, improving physical health and reducing stress.

Simon added: “It's been great to take an hour each week to clear my mind of any problems or worries and to slow myself down. It's given me the chance to really notice the birds singing and the sun shining through the trees.

“Learning about tai chi and mindfulness has inspired me to want to try other things and, after the sessions, I've started jogging along the Run England routes that are marked out around the woodland. I'll hopefully be taking part in the Northwich Festival of Running in the summer.

“The tai chi sessions have helped me to feel more confident in Northwich Woodlands and I'll hopefully be able to just focus on the running this time and not thinking about how quickly I can escape if I panic.

“I'd definitely recommend it to others and I think that most of the people I've spoken to during the course have said that they're intending on carrying on with the private sessions that are starting later in the year.”

Cheshire West and Chester Council has invested £427,700 over a four-year period from 2016 to 2020 to get more than 3,000 residents active and looking after their mental health.

Following a survey of participants, results to date show significant improvements in their health: an 83 per cent increase in walking and a 12 per cent increase in wellbeing.

The service makes use of Cheshire’s green spaces, woodlands and parks as a place in which to improve residents’ mental health and increasing their physical activity.

It has given Simon a new lease of life and is helping many other residents become fit and healthy in the great outdoors.

Ian Ashworth, the council’s director of public health, said: “We know that poor mental health is an increasing problem, particularly among our young people. By 2030 it will overtake chronic illness as the most prevalent cause of poor health. It has been labelled the ‘hidden epidemic’.

“Along with the strong partnership, our work with academics is a key part of the Natural Health Service. Two PhDs currently work alongside the delivery of services, providing independent analysis of the programmes and insight into how we continue to improve delivery. Our work has been seen as “leading edge” and ground breaking.

“Our aspiration is to have the service available across Cheshire West throughout the year. Our trees, woodlands and greenspaces provide lots of benefits, including helping us keep happy and healthy.”

For information on the Natural Health Service in Cheshire, visit