Outdoor enthusiasts lining up exercise options for pandemic winter

Canadians have taken to the outdoors for safer exercise in the warmer months of the pandemic. Now many are focusing on how to keep that going in the cold.

Gear flying off store shelves, communities tweaking usual offerings

Fresh Air Experience owner Jon Digney poses for a photo in his store Oct. 23, 2020, in Ottawa's Wellington West neighbourhood. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

At Fresh Air Experience in Ottawa, a sporting goods store that specializes in bikes in the summer and cross-country skis in winter, the demand for ski equipment doesn't traditionally take off until the first flakes of snow have fallen.

But business started booming months ahead of schedule.

After record bike sales during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresh Air owner Jon Digney is seeing the same phenomenon with cross-country skis.

He's booking appointments for in-store shopping up to three weeks in advance.

"Traditionally, when we transition from bikes to skis, we have a lull during October and November. The Christmas season kicks it off early December," Digney said.

"This year, it's already full speed ahead. We didn't have any transition. We went straight from bikes to skis in a day."

A fallen maple leaf covered in snow Oct. 26, 2020, in Ottawa, that city's first snowfall since early May. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

One silver lining eight months into the pandemic is that Canadians have embraced the outdoors, but winter will present new challenges.

While we know the importance of fresh air and movement for physical and mental health, plus evidence the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is lower outside, the cold and shorter darker days will push people indoors.

Gabor Csonka, president of Calgary's Foothills Nordic club, isn't surprised that cross-country ski equipment is flying off the shelves. The sport's benefits, he said, are numerous.

"You're outdoors, usually in a beautiful environment with trees and hills. Humans need to connect with nature," he said. "And you don't need to be in close contact with anyone, but you can still go for a ski and and have a conversation with someone."

After seeing parks crowded with summer hikers, Csonka hopes there's the infrastructure to handle a potential influx.

"Do we have enough parking spaces, toilets, and trails that are groomed or maintained?" he said.

Vehicles line up Chelsea, Que., north of Ottawa, where visitors flocked to see fall colours in Gatineau Park on Sept. 27, 2020. ( Nafi Alibert/Radio-Canada)

Across the country, federal and municipal governments are still hammering out winter plans.

The City of Toronto's ActiveTO program of road closures was extended into October because of its popularity. Now, Toronto will switch gears to promote its toboggan hills, snowshoeing trails, and the city's 50-plus outdoor ice rinks.

"There's so many great things to explore outdoors in Toronto, so it's a chance to really connect with nature this fall and winter and try some outdoor sport and outdoor activities that you've never done before," said Howie Dayton, Toronto's director of community recreation.

Precautionary measures around issues like skate rentals at the popular Nathan Phillips Square rink are still being ironed out.

Focus on solo, spaced exercise

Quebec continues to be Canada's COVID-19 hot spot in terms of total cases and it's one of the areas to restrict team sports.

With the situation evolving, Montreal has prepared various scenarios around safe outdoor activities, the city said in a statement.

"For the time being, and provided that all conditions remain unchanged, only individual outdoor activities will be promoted," the statement said, listing hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and skating.

A busy summer gave Ontario's Blue Mountain Resort staff plenty of practice around capacity management.

The resort just northwest of Collingwood, Ont., won't sell walk-up tickets for skiing and snowboarding, they'll need to be pre-purchased online.

Capacity will be kept to a reasonable number, "So that there's enough space, whether it be in a lift line or the base lodge . . . so that all those spaces accommodate physical distancing," said Tara Lovell, Blue Mountain's manager of public relations.

A snowboarder gets some air in front of a silhouetted chairlift during the opening day of the 2010/2011 season at Blue Mountain near Collingwood, Ont., Dec. 9, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The resort has appointed task forces to study everything from lift lines to lessons, to dining and lodging.

"When it comes to rentals and other amenities you'd typically go indoors for, we're exploring things like having tents and heated outdoor spaces," Lovell said.

"As much as possible, we're getting people outside."

Masks will be mandatory both indoors, and anywhere outdoors where distancing is difficult, such as in lift lineups and on lifts.

Psychological sustainability

Robin Mazumder, an environmental neuroscientist who studies the psychological impacts of urban design, wants to talk about psychological sustainability.

That means mental wellbeing manifested by healthy behaviours and feelings of happiness and fulfilment — and it's threatened right now, not only by COVID-19, but other stressors such as politics and the U.S. election, he said.

"Then you've got winter and people's perceptions of the winter time as being not a nice time of year," he said.

"I'd love to see cities putting fire pits outside, putting blankets out, keeping these pop-up bike lanes and sidewalks open and really encouraging people."

A skater warms up next to a fire at a Rideau Canal Skateway rest area on Jan. 5, 2018. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Sidewalk snow removal will likely be a hot-button topic. Icy, snowy sidewalks will increase isolation for many.

"If you tell people to go outside in the winter, and then they slip and break a hip or something because the sidewalk's not cleared, then that's a massive disincentive," Mazumder said.

Trying new activities

If the early-season cross-country sales at Fresh Air Experience are an indication, many people are at least planning for outdoor activities.

Digney, the store's owner since 2012, said many shoppers are first-time skiers.

"We're selling ski, boot, binding, pole, the full package, sometimes to full families, twos and threes at a time," he said.

While his store doesn't sell snowshoes, he said "I guarantee the same phenomenon will happen."

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