Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Escape from the Gym- Step into Nature!

By Jayme Crittenden, Communications Officer at Conservation Ontario

If you are like 98% of the people I know…you hate the gym. I can honestly say that I am no exception. Sure, I do my best to get there- I put in my 30 minutes of cardio, followed by some strength training, and all the while listen to a lot of really bad ‘top 40 ’ adolescent music playing over the PA system. I enjoy the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done something good for my body, but I can’t say I actually like it.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could obtain the myriad health benefits of the gym, while being blissfully ignorant to the fact you are undertaking the ‘chore’ that is exercising? You probably already are.

In 2011, over 6 million Ontarians used their free time to explore Conservation Areas with their families, friends, and dogs. Based on this number we can assume that roughly 1 in 2 of us enjoy spending time in the great outdoors- at least on occasion.  Despite this reverence for nature- we are fatter, sadder, and sicker than ever. It doesn’t help that new technologies (such as the Wii) have allowed us-and more specifically our children- to pretend to jog, cycle, fish, ski, and swim in ‘nature’ from the comfort of our own homes. In Ontario, health care spending in 2011/2012 is projected to be over $47 billion- that’s nearly 38% of the province’s total $124 billion expenses, and many of the common illnesses that plague us are preventable. Think of the time and resources that could be saved if we focused on preventing these problems rather than simply treating them.

Doctors and researchers are starting to think this way, and many recent studies have examined connections between time spent in nature and prevention of various medical conditions. Some doctors, Dr. Conrad Sichler from Burlington for example, have started writing ‘park prescriptions’ for patients suffering from stress, depression, and other conditions associated with lack of physical activity. Studies have shown that the mental benefits of exposure to nature include reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and improvements in memory. Physical benefits include increased weight loss and fitness, increased energy and immunity, increased vitamin D production, and reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the value of nature in a province where we have such easy access to an abundance of green space. However, it is crucial that we place a higher priority on investing in and protecting natural areas and in promoting the health benefits associated with visiting them. If we embrace the value of these areas, the result will be lower health care costs and a happier and healthier population. 

There are over 270 publicly accessible Conservation Areas in this province, and all (at the very least) offer up the ability for you to wander around in the wilderness. These protected green spaces are typically located close to urban centers, some are open year-round, and many offer free admission.  Collectively, Conservation Areas provide access to over 2900 km of multi-use trails where you can enjoy a variety of recreation activities like hiking, cycling, and snowshoeing and skiing in the winter months.

The benefits of these natural areas don’t stop with improvements to mental and physical health! Conservation Areas and other Conservation Authority owned properties also protect important ecological features- like wetlands, forests, and Great Lakes shoreline- as well as natural heritage and biodiversity in our local watersheds. The health of our natural environment plays a crucial role in our own health and well-being, and healthy ecosystems provide us with multiple goods and services that sustain us, including food, materials (such as wood), fuel, clean air, and drinking water.  Collectively, Conservation Authorities own over 37,000 hectares of wetlands, which help protect the quality and supply of our water by acting as a natural filter for toxic substances, prevent soil erosion, and store flood waters. CAs also own nearly 92,000 hectares of forested lands, which moderate our climate, regulate water systems, and purify our air by filtering out many airborne pollutants.

Do yourself a favour- get outside and take advantage of the benefits available at the natural areas near you.  While you’re there, look around and notice the trees, wetlands, lakes, and rivers that are each doing their part to keep you healthy and safe.

Jayme Crittenden is a a Communications Officer with Conservation Ontario.  As part of her role she is lucky enough to learn about and promote 270 green gems (and health powerhouses)- Ontario's Conservation Areas