With gyms in Ottawa shut again because of COVID-19 restrictions, many residents will have to consider outdoor activities to stay fit this fall and possibly through the winter. 

“We’re like little machines that get rusty,” said Alfonso Abizaid, a neuroscience professor at Carleton University.

When we stop exercising, our metabolism slows down, weight gain occurs and the likelihood of developing a long-term disease goes up, he explained.

“Your mental health is also in peril when you’re not exercising.”

Aerobic exercise is very good for the brain, increasing the production of new neurons, which boost learning, memory and mood, he said.

“So, exercise – to a certain extent – is a very good antidepressant,” said Abizaid.

Staying active in Ottawa

Ottawa has a number of walking trails, spread throughout the Greenbelt, the Rideau River, the Rideau Canal, Gatineau Park and Calabogie.

While the NCC’s pilot project, which closed three parkways in Ottawa over the summer to allow for optimal physical distancing for people exercising outdoors, finished on Oct. 14, the Gatineau Park remains open, and winter passes for cross-country skiing, cycling and snowshoeing will be available on Oct. 22.

A little girl walks her dog down the sidewalk.
Walking a dog is an easy way to get some exercise in your day. [Photo © Jen Siushansian]

“We expect all of the current measures and social distancing to remain in effect during the cross-country ski trails season as well,” wrote NCC spokesman Cédric Pelletier in an email.

Other winter staples are also being planned around COVID-19 restrictions.

“During the 2020-2021 skating season on the Rideau Canal Skateway, skaters will have to comply with all public health directives,” wrote Pelletier. Signage and instructions will be displayed.

Winterlude will be hosted by Canadian Heritage again this year, spokeswoman Amélie Desmarais wrote in an email. “However, the format in which it will be presented remains under review.”

The city is also working on alternate winter programming, wrote Dan Chenier, general manager of recreation, cultural and facility services in a statement. 

“Programs will build on our traditional annual outdoor community rink program at over 200 locations, our work with community groups on winter ski trails, and options for park-based programming in-line with our summer Park Ambassador program.”

Benefits of outdoor exercise

Being outside is better for us emotionally and physically, said Rob Burnfield, the president of the Ottawa Outdoor Club.

The key is physical distancing.

“That’s where having the mask available is important,” he said.

The outdoor club runs five main activities: hiking, cycling, canoeing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Although cycling is a challenge with COVID-19 restrictions, hiking is easy, said Burnfied.

Going outside for a walk allows people to chat with others, even if they’re two meters apart on the trails.

“It’s a chance for community,” said Burnfield.

“Humans are inherently social,” said Abizaid. “And because we are very social, the social restrictions are very taxing.”

Before the snow comes, Abizaid suggested people engage in long or brisk walks, running and cycling. In the winter, there are other options, such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

“My suggestions are really based on my own privileged position,” said Abizaid. “I live south of the city where open spaces are easy to find. If you live downtown, that’s not as easy.”

Keeping cycling and walking paths well maintained will allow for activities that are normally difficult because of the snow.

“Our number one priority for winter maintenance is to keep residents safe and the transportation network accessible,” Quentin Levesque, director of roads and parking services with the City of Ottawa, wrote in a statement. 

The city is evaluating how transportation patterns might change this winter and it will work with councillors on key sidewalk and multi-use pathway challenges to provide adequate snow clearing while complying with health guidelines, he added.

“If the city can keep those possibilities open, the people will be more likely to comply with the restrictions,” said Abizaid. “Because really, the biggest fear right now is that people will just not comply with restrictions at some point.”

Creative ways to stay active, indoors and outdoors

Some residents are finding their own creative solutions to stay active. Bodybuilder David Babin built his own homemade gym when fitness centres shut down in March.

“You can do exercises like cable flys, any low rows, high rows, almost every workout imaginable,” said Babin. “My machine is just simple — wood, pulleys and ropes — so it’s really low budget.” 

Some local gyms are offering virtual fitness classes.

Shaking off lethargy may be as simple as some quick pushups or a walk around the block between Zoom meetings or online lectures, said Abizaid. These types of heart-pumping aerobic exercise are beneficial for mental health and concentration, he said.

Yoga, with its mindfulness and mediation, in addition to stretching muscles, can also help calm and relax a person’s body and mind.

“All of these coping strategies and mechanisms we’ve known for a long time,” said Abizaid. “But this is a time in which we can put them to test, because we are being tested – and we’ll be tested for the long term.”