Illustration of two people walking on a tree branch in the forest

Illustration by Mia Lai

Walk your way to mental health in Toronto and the GTA

Lace up your hiking boots! Walking in our urban and suburban parks can boost your brain’s well-being

In 2014, Aashir Vahidy was a high school student, freshly arrived from Pakistan. As a newcomer to Canada, he wasn’t immune to the stresses that come with adjusting to a new life in a country far from his childhood home.

He soon came across a program run by Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee that looked interesting. The group offers guided Ravine Walks—discovery tours aimed at engaging newcomer youth in Toronto. These walks through the Don Valley trail system expose participants to an alluring woodland setting they haven’t experienced before, and help them get acquainted with their peers. “The walks make people forget about their day-to-day stress,” says Vahidy, who is now a college student. He liked them so much, in fact, that today he is the program leader. “While walking, I get to know people while also enjoying the beautiful forest,” he says.

It’s likely that you’ve also felt better after taking a head-clearing walk outdoors. And it’s no wonder. There’s plenty of proof that heading into a green space for a stroll can improve your mental health. A 2018 study in the journal BioScience found that being outdoors, seeing trees and the sky, hearing birds sing and feeling in contact with nature improved mental well-being. Here’s another impressive finding: That mood boost lasted for seven hours after the walk was done.

In Japan, the practice known as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” has been promoted by that country’s government for more than 40 years for its ability to reduce stress. Clearly, there’s just something about the great outdoors that does us good.

Here in the GTA, immersing oneself in woodland and green spaces—known as “forest therapy”—is catching on, and we have plenty of access to trails and ravines across the city and in the suburbs where you can unwind and reap nature’s health-promoting benefits.

A 2014 study showed that walking with others helped lower depression and perceived stress, and enhanced positive feelings and mental well-being.

In Markham there are specifically designated Forest Therapy Trails, where you can take part in either a self-guided walk or hire a specially trained guide to lead you through the network of paths. The City of Toronto’s website details 12 trails and natural areas that are ideal for everything from birdwatching at Colonel Samuel Smith Park in Etobicoke to hiking the sprawling 11-acre Glen Stewart Ravine between the Beach and Kingston Road in the eastern end of the city.

Don’t want to go it alone? Group nature walks, like the ones Vahidy leads, are another effective way to improve mental health. A 2014 study showed that walking with others helped lower depression and perceived stress, and enhanced positive feelings and mental well-being. Community walking groups are growing in popularity, so lots of GTA residents are getting in the act as a way to connect with others and feel rooted in a new environment.

Psychologist Dr. Silvina Galperin offers walk-and-talk therapy sessions in Thornhill, Ont. She meets clients at the office and they stroll over to Pomona Park’s trail or around Oakbank Park’s pond, and then make their way back to the office to finish the session. “Most people who seek therapy would benefit from walking instead of sitting for an hour, so I thought it would be a good combination,” says Galperin. For some clients, being outside walking shoulder-to-shoulder—rather than sitting across from a therapist in an office setting—feels like a more natural way to talk about problems, she says.

“Walking in natural areas such as parks and valleys offers the additional benefit of being [immersed] in nature,” adds Galperin, “where we can practice mindful seeing, listening to the birds, the sound of the water and mindful walking.” All the more reason to make your way into the woods for your next stroll.

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