Why being active outdoors matters more than ever

Why being active outdoors matters more than ever

Not so long ago, Anna Pearson woke up at 2:45am, walked 8km up to Cascade Lookout in Manning Park, BC, and watched the sun slowly creep up from behind the mountains, turning the sky shades of gold, rose and powder blue. There’s no doubt that morning’s sunrise meant something special to all 50 strangers who witnessed it as a part of MEC Outdoor Nation and Chasing Sunrise’s Chasecamp weekend, but for Anna, it meant something different.

As she later recapped on her personal blog, Daily Insanity, “… taking on new adventures, meeting new people and exploring the world … was my way of showing the monsters that lived inside my head that I was in control of my life and that they would never be able to stop me from pursuing my happiness.”

The Ottawa-based McGill University grad has spent the past five years coming to terms with her clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder, following what Anna describes as a breakdown and emergency situation over a summer during university. Now, with a healthy routine in place, she bravely chronicles her thoughts on relapse, remission and therapy on the blog, and touches often on a core part of her daily practice: exercise and outdoor activity. “I’ve been doing ballet since I was 4 years old, but I kind of stopped when I went to school,” she says. “Now, being active is hugely important to my daily routine – hiking absolutely has its advantages. My friends say they’ve never seen me so happy.”

Why being active outdoors matters more than ever

Jacob, Alexis and Anna enjoying the great outdoors.

It’s a lesson those involved in Canadian charity Jack.org know well. Alexis Lahorra and Jacob Halloran are young leaders with the organization, and help start conversations to end the silence around mental health issues. “I wish people knew that we all have mental health,” says Alexis. “Although 1 in 5 young people will live with a mental illness in their lifetime, 5 in 5 of us have mental health and we all need to care for it.” It’s a sentiment that Jacob echoes. “Just like our physical health, our mental health can fluctuate from well to unwell,” he says. “I’d love for everyone to know that it’s okay to fluctuate across this spectrum.”

Truly, the two go hand in hand. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Canadian Mental Health Association describe mental and physical health as “fundamentally linked,” further noting that key aspects of prevention of poor mental health include “increasing physical activity, access to nutritious foods … and fostering social inclusion and social support.” A recent Stanford University study also found quantifiable evidence that “walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.”

For Alexis, who has faced depression and anxiety as a result of cyberbullying, being outdoors not only decreases her stress levels, but ups her overall happiness. “There is something so soothing and relaxing about being around trees, mountains and fresh air,” says the Montreal resident. “I like to bring a journal with me. I use that time to disconnect, reflect and enjoy the moment.”

Jacob is adamant that people should not have to suffer in silence because of the stigma that surrounds mental health and mental illness, and sees himself as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. “Love is love, and health is health,” he states. As a marathon runner based in Halifax, he sees activity as his go-to for mental health self-care. “I love distance running because it offers me a chance to lose myself in the moment and let go of daily stresses. Spending time outside helps me keep my life in perspective.”

Their Royal Highnesses meet with Jack.org youth in Victoria, BC.

Youth from Jack.org’s national network recently met with their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Victoria, BC, while the couple was on their second Canadian tour; an event that will surely help quell lingering public stigma about mental health.

Continuing the discussion is something that is vitally important to Alexis, Jacob and Anna. “I always knew I wanted to share [my story],” says Anna, who first divulged her personal experience in a McGill student publication before starting her blog. “Total strangers wrote to me, sharing similar stories,” she says. It’s something that happens more frequently now as a result of Daily Insanity. “It’s not always about giving advice,” she says of being there for strangers. “I just try and listen and be there as a support. I let them drive the conversation.”

One piece of advice Anna is quick to give, however, is not to introduce activity at a vulnerable time. She admits to initially taking up running as a coping mechanism for her depression and anxiety, eventually developing an eating disorder and an injury. She suggests recreational group activities as a first step because they come with built-in community and support. “When you recover from a downward spiral,” says Anna, “you realize all the little things you take for granted, and the outdoors has a way of really highlighting that.”

Why being active outdoors matters more than ever

Anna at Lac Philippe, Gatineau Park, Quebec.

Having recently reconnected with a friend from high school who had reached out and said she’d faced similar struggles, the two are back from a hiking and camping trip through Lake Louise, Banff and Field. At home, she donates her time as a karma yogi at her local studio and gets outside often at Gatineau Park, which she calls a hidden gem. The active moments afford her the clarity she needs to see her mental health clearly. “It makes me think about what matters,” she says. “What I really want.”

MEC was proud to provide youth mental health organization Jack.org – and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – with MEC Alpine Ally and Hydrofoil jackets for an official Royal Tour event in Victoria Harbour, BC.

Top photo credit: Ivan Calderon.

Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.