Skating, skiing, snowshoeing: Ottawa residents turn to outdoor activities to keep fit during second pandemic winter

Lockdowns and restrictions on indoor activities during the Omicron wave of the pandemic have limited access to fitness centers, running tracks, and other traditional exercise options.

So many Ottawa residents have once again turned to the great outdoors to stay active this winter, maintaining their blood circulation and finding solace in the outdoor recreational activities the city has to offer.

No place for winter exercise is more popular than the Rideau Canal Skateway. The National Capital Commission opened the 7.8-kilometre skating surface to the public on January 14, and it remained open until hot, humid weather caused an indefinite closure nearly a month later.

NCC Communications Advisor Maryam El-Akhrass said special measures have been put in place this year to ensure the rink is as safe as possible for COVID-19. Skaters are encouraged to wear masks at all times and must wear them when using the washrooms or queuing at concession stands, which have a 50% capacity limit.

Having recently moved to the city, El-Akhrass said she was surprised by the popularity of the rink.

“I think the ice rink is something that gets a lot of excitement in the area,” El-Akhrass said. “I’m kind of new to Ottawa and I was shocked to see how much people were waiting for this rink to open.”

The rink was first opened in the 1970-71 season and has an average skating season of 50 days per winter.

This season, the rink was open for 27 consecutive skating days before closing on February 9. According to the NCC, as of February 6, the total number of visits to the rink this season was over 350,000. This is slightly less than in previous years.

The 2020-21 skating season saw 508,299 visits, and the numbers were even higher in the years before the pandemic began.

El-Akhrass said the attraction’s novelty, coupled with its ability to bring people together, is why the rink is so vital to the community.

“For our brain function and our mental well-being, we need to move our bodies. In addition to delivering oxygen to the brain, exercise results in a release of feel-good endorphins and the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

— Elyse Dubo, Toronto-based psychiatrist

“I think he’s just a great asset…a city icon,” she said. “It’s a great setting for a family outing, for an outing with friends. It’s different and it’s special.

Although it may stand out for its popularity, the rink has an expiration date every season, as its operation is highly dependent on weather conditions. However, this is just one of the many outdoor winter exercise options found in the city.

The Dovercourt Recreation Association, a non-profit recreation organization in Westboro, has operated the Dovercourt Recreation Center on behalf of the City of Ottawa since 1987. The DRA chooses the programs offered and how they want the center to serve the community.

Kathleen Finn, one of Dovercourt’s program directors, said in early February that the center had seen a surge in the number of people using its two outdoor rinks, which operate at a capacity of 25 people.

Hear Finn talk about the beauty of Dovercourt’s ice rinks

Dovercourt’s rinks are carefully maintained by a group of volunteers.

“The ice is beautiful, but it’s beautiful every year,” Finn said. “So it’s a well-used community asset.”

Dovercourt is also responsible for running various recreational programs and activities in the town, the most popular of which is the Kichi Sibi Winter Trail. The trail runs alongside the Ottawa River Capital Trail and is open to skiers, joggers, walkers, snowshoers and more.

“(The Kichi Sibi Winter Trail) is probably the most used per capita,” Finn said. “And it’s gotten busier and busier in recent years with COVID-19.”

A cold winter trail is not everyone’s first choice for a fitness option. But while it would be easy to put a break on physical activity when restrictions are in place, experts say staying active remains an essential aspect of healthy living.

Toronto psychiatrist Elyse Dubo said as Canadians navigate the final stage of the pandemic, we must continue to prioritize our physical and mental health.

“For our brain function and our mental well-being, we need to move our bodies,” Dubo said. “In addition to delivering oxygen to the brain, exercise results in a release of feel-good endorphins and the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.”

According to Dubo, keeping our bodies moving has a direct positive impact on our mental health and mental acuity.

“After exercise, we have a greater sense of well-being and our minds are open to new ideas and creative problem solving,” she said.

As of January 31, gymnasiums across Ontario had reopened at 50 per cent capacity, offering Ottawa residents the opportunity to escape the midwinter chill and train indoors, or continue to enjoy the multitude of outdoor recreation options that can be found. Through the city.