Your Health

Connect with nature

Take your physical activity outside for added health benefits, even in winter

Shantelle Breed
Shantelle Breed enjoys being outside.
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Winnipeg's natural spaces

BY SHELAGH GRAHAM
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2014

I may speak for many Winnipeggers when I say that last winter was rough.

If you're like me, you may have found yourself inside even more than usual, hiding from the cold. You may have felt the effects of cloudy days that came our way. As adults, no one sends us outside to play and get fresh air.

But we should!

In summer, I love to walk along our rivers, stopping in quiet spots to look and listen. In winter, it's tempting to move activities indoors. But while it is great to stay active through the winter in any way you can, health researchers are finding important reasons to spend more time outdoors.

Physical activity can help keep you fit, reduce your risk for chronic diseases, and enhance your mental and emotional well-being. But researchers are now finding that these benefits increase when we are active in an outdoor environment, especially a natural one.

Both physical activity and time spent in nature help us to manage our daily life stress. The more time people spend in nature, the less stressed they feel.

A 2013 study from Glasgow, Scotland, underscores the point. It found that even a small change, like a short walk in a park each week, can help you feel less stressed.

Dr. Lawrence Elliott, Medical Officer of Health with the Winnipeg Health Region, says spending time in a natural environment can help ease the demands of daily life.

"Family, work, school and other activities often need our constant attention and brain power," says Elliott. "Busy days and weeks can lead to attention fatigue. A dose of nature can help us recover and increase our concentration and productivity."

Nature can also help improve our mood. When you experience feelings of anxiety, anger or sadness, spending time in nature can help. Natural sunlight exposure in winter, in particular, can help to prevent or decrease symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Where can you find these natural environments?

While Winnipeg is surrounded by many beautiful provincial parks and natural settings, you don't necessarily have to leave the city to connect with nature. Hiking or jogging in our urban parks, forests, community gardens, or along our trails and riverbanks can provide benefits over and above those we typically get from physical activity indoors.

When you have an opportunity to be active in a natural environment, take full advantage.

Turn off your music and take a break from conversation for a while to engage fully with your surroundings.

With winter approaching, I have decided to make the most of this year and resist the temptation to curl up inside. My first stop will be the Windsor Park Nordic Centre in St. Boniface. Only 10 minutes from downtown, they offer cross-country ski lessons for newbies like me, as well as 10 km of trails along the Seine River. They have skis to rent too, so I can try it out before buying any equipment.

Elliott agrees that cross-country skiing makes a lot of sense as a Winnipeg winter activity.

"It's fun, easy to learn, and provides great whole-body exercise for people of all ages," he says. "My favourite places to ski around Winnipeg are at Beaudry Park near Headingley, Wildwood Community Centre and Windsor Park Nordic Centre."

Whether you choose to walk, ski, toboggan, snowshoe, build a snowman or go skating, there are many fun activities for people of all ages to enjoy outside. Enjoy the best of what winter has to offer and get a regular dose of nature this winter.  

Shelagh Graham is a healthy built environment specialist with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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