Montreal

It's time for Quebecers to start thinking about how to get through the winter, expert says

Thanks to COVID-19, being inside now comes with a level of risk many of us have never before had to consider. There is no getting around it: this winter is going to be, at the very least, a challenge.

Plan ways to be social, plan ways to be physically active, plan to revise your plan if need be

Cross-country skiing on Mount Royal may be one option for people looking for new winter activities this year. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

As the winter sports coordinator of Randonnée Aventure, an outdoors club in Montreal, Gail Tedstone is already contemplating how she will manage this winter.

The club usually organizes bus trips and activities outside the city in the winter. But with new health rules around gatherings and distancing and even bus trips, she knows this year will be different.

"It means that we are certainly all more confined," said Tedstone, who lives in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. "But personally, I manage to stay active and that's part of my plan, one way or the other, whether it's in town or out of town."

Having a plan, experts say, will be important for maintaining our physical and mental health over the coming months. 

When the days get shorter, and the temperatures drop, we normally begin to head inside. But thanks to COVID-19, that now comes with a level of risk many of us never had to consider before.

A security guard stands in front of the emergency unit of the Verdun Hospital in April. Getting the flu shot will be important this year, says epidemiologist Prativa Baral. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

At the same time, it's not yet clear what activities we'll be able to do outside. 

What will we be open over the holiday period? Ski hills will be allowed to operate, but weather issues aside, will outdoor rinks open? What is the City of Montreal doing to encourage people to go outdoors?

Officials say it's too soon to give definitive answers to those questions. It's not too early, though, to accept that winter is going to be tough, and like Tedstone, start planning.

How to stay physically healthy

Cases of the virus went down over the summer as many of us spent time outside, where distancing is easier and the risk of transmission is lower.

But the thing about winter in Quebec is that people wind up in crowded, unventilated spaces for long periods of time, said Pravita Baral, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. "That's basically the virus's happy place," she said.

Baral said she expects more cases will pop up as more and more of us head indoors, so large gatherings will still have to be avoided in the coming months. 

In fact, Baral said she doesn't expect that things will necessarily be very different. We will still have to physically distance and maintain hygiene measures, such as hand washing and mask wearing.

Then, there's the uncertainty around how the flu season is going to go. Some experts are worried about a so-called "twindemic," where the health-care system is overwhelmed by COVID-19 and influenza.

This man, skating on Lac Saint-Louis a few years ago, was practising physical distancing before it was mandatory. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"I know it's difficult because people are fatigued and we all feel that mental fatigue," Baral said.

"But it's really, really important that we keep pushing at it to make sure that we don't overwhelm our health systems and to make sure that our cases are as low as possible."

How to stay mentally healthy

When the first lockdown started, it was March. Summer was coming, and we had a clearly stated goal: trying to flatten the curve, said Erin Barker, an associate professor in Concordia University's department of psychology.

At that time, we were in what could be described as an acute stress phase. "Individuals, when we're in an acute stressful situation, all of our physiological resources and psychological resources rise up and that helps us to push through," she explained.

But now we're in more of a chronic stress phase, where the daily grind feels draining, Barker says. We can't see the finish line and the strategies we came up with in March to energize ourselves are now feeling stale.

It's important to acknowledge that winter might not be what we want it to be, though without giving in to despair, Barker said. The solution? Plan ahead, as much as possible.

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"I know it seems like a lot of people will say, 'Well, how can I make plans? How can I plan for anything when there's so much uncertainty?' But I think just the act of planning will help," she said.

Plan ways to be social even though we will have to be physically distant. Plan ways to be physically active even though your usual routines — going to the gym, playing indoor sports — have been disrupted.

Find activities that are inherently pleasurable and interesting to boost your mood, and make a plan to re-evaluate your plan and ensure it's still working for you as the weeks and months go by, she said.

"I think we have to be as proactive as possible because … the deeper we get into winter, the harder it will be to dig yourself out of that [feeling] if you haven't sort of come up with some other alternatives or strategies or ideas for things that you can do to boost your mood."

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