Through an Open Window: Sport and the Medical Humanities

In Part 3 of the Moving Bodies takeover, Rebecca Olive and Clare Hickman unpack the entangled histories of sports and exercise sciences and the medical humanities 

Conversations linking issues of human health and wellbeing with nature and environmental connection have been growing across the humanities, arts and social sciences. Contributing to big questions of human-planetary health and wellbeing, these conversations offer a rich space through which to explore human and non-human relationalities, entanglements, precarities, and possibilities. The obvious complexity of these topics has led to rich bodies of scholarship drawing on theories and methods across fields including history, cultural studies, geography, and sociology.  

These fields are home to scholars who are in medical humanities and sport and exercise sciences. What ties our interests in recreational sport, physical activity, and the histories of medicine together is an assumption that human and environmental health and wellbeing are connected. The central claim is that time spent with nature is beneficial to our physical and mental health. Our work thus attends to the multiple barriers to people accessing these benefits. In our case, Rebecca’s work on nature-based sports and Clare’s work on historic landscapes are linked by our shared conceptual interests in therapeutic landscapes, human-environmental health and wellbeing, human/non-human entanglements, and the links between forms of environmental and social in/justice. We are both concerned with the continued human/nature separation that shapes how health is governed, experienced and understood in many contexts.  

As White scholars hailing from European philosophical traditions, we recognise that the challenges to this binary we make in our work are already in action for many people who come from non-Western cultural traditions. For example, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people embody cultural traditions whereby caring for Country is caring for community and thus self. This worldview – one shared across diverse cultures – is one our scholarship is working towards; we aim to promote complementary knowledges that can more ethically work together to challenge the continued dominance of Western knowledge in understandings and governance of both human and environmental health.  

While we share many similarities in concepts and interests, when it comes to thinking across medical humanities and sport and exercise science a key difference is our starting points for exploring human-nature health and wellbeing relationalities. Medical humanities often start with clinical pathologies, professions, institutions, traditions, spaces, and patient experiences. Conversely, sport and exercise studies start with formal and informal communities, cultures, practices, and experiences of nature and outdoor environments through physical activities and movement.  

In the latter, time in nature has often been promoted as a therapeutic enhancement of the individual ‘health’ that is embedded in thinking about sport and physical activity participation. Although there is no emphasis on high-performance or competitive versions of ‘sport’ in this work, there remains the assumption that people are highly mobile and have levels of skills, knowledge, experience, confidence, and community networks necessary to safely undertake hikes, bike rides, swims, and paddles in outdoor environments. Recent work challenges these assumptions, by emphasising the structural, infrastructural and cultural politics that exclude diverse people from accessing therapeutic benefits of landscapes as a consequence of racism, sexism, ableism (Bell & Bush 2021), private land and water ownership, the dangers of some animal encounters (Olive 2023), and the effects of environmental pollution (Evers & Phoenix 2022), on how sport and physical activities like surfing, swimming, and walking are experienced. Participants in nature-based sports and physical activities navigate various ways to create safe spaces for themselves or to trespass upon spaces they have been unfairly excluded from. Research too is increasingly drawing from diverse bodies of knowledge to make sense of human-nature relationships outside of European philosophical traditions (Wheaton et al. 2021).  

Similarly, there are many diverse ways in which the medical humanities lens explores the sensory and embodied relationships to therapeutic spaces. Ground breaking sensory historical work on hospitals has highlighted the complex relationships between what is experienced as ‘healthy’ and the lines between nature which is welcome and that which is seen as problematic or vectors of disease/matter out of place. The early twentieth-century open-air sanatoria designed for patients with a diagnosis of tuberculosis is a great historical example for illustrating these tensions (Mooney 2015). Here clean conditions that minimised dust with its associated risks of infection were viewed as essential, while at the same time animals and plants were being accessed by patients (Hakosalo 2020) in multisensory and subversive ways, such as via birds flying through open windows and onto beds or balconies. Examples of patient’s agency in the face of hegemonic medical authorities are illuminated through these moments, as is the relative newness of medical treatments that rely on pharmaceutical/capitalist relationships (Hickman 2022), which discourage the use of complementary plant-based remedies accessible through home gardens or foraging.  

In each case, bodies – both mobile and immobilised – are at the centre of changing ethical engagements with nature encounters in terms of the vulnerabilities they afford and the level of risk that is conceived as beneficial. Encounters with unsanitary and/or uncontrollable plants, animals, and weather conditions reveal vulnerabilities of patients’ treatment and healing, and of sports participants assumed health and safety. Nature is therapeutic, but soil and bacteria can create infections, noise and light can inflame skin and the senses, injuries can be caused by claws, teeth, fangs, beaks and thorns, while carcinogenic chemicals have much longer health implications. Yet, despite this, nature encounters remain popular and therapeutic for physical activity participants and patients alike. Rather than a backdrop to sporting practices, or a view out the window from a convalescent bed, physical interactions with plants and critters are increasingly understood to be central to both experiences, and to have important relational, planetary implications for the health and wellbeing of us all. 

This article is published as part of the ‘Medical Humanities and Sport and exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue’ takeover series, which is guest edited by Cassandra Phoenix and Rebecca Olive. 

About the authors 

Rebecca Olive is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University (Australia), and the co-convener of the human-environmental health and wellbeing theme in the HASH Network. You can find out more about her work at Moving Oceans

Clare Hickman is Reader in Environmental and Medical History at Newcastle University (UK), where her work focuses on post 1750 Britain. She is lead for the Unlocking Landscapes Network: History, Culture and Sensory Diversity in Landscape Use and Decision Making, a member of the Sensory Hospital Collective, and is author of several books. You can visit her website to find more out about her work. 

References 

Bates, Victoria. 2021. Making Noise in the Modern Hospital. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Bell, Sarah, and Tanvir Bush. 2021. “‘Never mind the bullocks’: animating the go-along interview through creative nonfiction.” Mobilities 16 (3): 306-321.  

Evers, Clifton, and Cassandra Phoenix. 2022. “Relationships between recreation and pollution when striving for wellbeing in blue spaces.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19 (7): 4170. 

Hakosalo, Heini. 2020. “The Woodland Cure.” In: In Pursuit of Healthy Environments: Historical Cases on the Environment-Health Nexus, edited by Esa Ruuskanen and Heini Hakosalo, 63-82. London: Routledge. 

Hickman, Clare. 2022. “Pine fresh: The cultural and medical context of pine scent in relation to health—from the forest to the home.” Medical Humanities 48 (1): 104-113. 

Mooney, G. 2015. Intrusive interventions: Public health, domestic space, and infectious disease surveillance in England, 1840-1914. Martlesham: Boydell & Brewer. 

Olive, Rebecca. 2023. “Swimming and surfing in ocean ecologies: Encounter and vulnerability in nature-based sport and physical activity.”  Leisure Studies 42 (5): 679-692. 

Wheaton, Belinda, Jordan Waiti, Rebecca Olive, and Robin Kearns. 2021. Coastal communities, leisure and wellbeing: Advancing a trans-disciplinary agenda for understanding ocean-human relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health18 (2): 450. 

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