Fitness: Will outdoor exercise be the next casualty of climate change?

Nothing throws a wrench into a run, bike ride, paddle, swim or game of tennis or pickleball than fickle weather.

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As much as the average Canadian loves to talk about the weather, outdoor exercisers rival even the most ardent weather watcher when it comes scrutinizing the forecast.

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After all, nothing throws a wrench into a run, bike ride, paddle, swim or game of tennis or pickleball than fickle weather. And with climate change bringing more dramatic weather patterns to all parts of Canada, weather conditions are more likely to change how we exercise outdoors.  

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For the first time since opening day in 1971, the Rideau Canal Skateway in Ottawa didn’t open this winter. Citing higher than average temperatures, the officials in charge of the ice surface on the world’s largest skating rink stated it was too thin to safely accommodate the thousands of recreational skaters who use the Skateway annually.

The same mild temperatures made cross-country ski trails stickier this year, which is tough for snow-sport athletes hoping to enjoy winter on their skis. And more and more communities are installing expensive refrigerated rinks to extend the skating season, which has slowly but noticeably gotten shorter in recent decades.

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According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, a 2019 summary of climate sciences, seasonal snow accumulation has declined from coast to coast since 1981, a phenomenon projected to continue making winters look very different in the years to come. But it’s not just a lack of snow that changes winter recreational activities. Extreme fluctuations in temperature that triggers melting followed by icy conditions means sidewalks feel less safe for people who like to walk and run in the winter.

Climate change also impacts summer activities, with intense heat, wind and rain having a negative effect on outdoor exercise.  

“Extremes in weather (i.e. too hot, cold windy or wet) reduces mobility and engagement with our physical environment,” said a team of Australian researchers whose recent study on the effects of weather on physical activity was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. “This may limit opportunities for physical activity, including outdoor exercise, recreation and safe active transport, reduce the comfort of sleeping environments, and more time may be spent indoors, where sedentary pursuits are common (sitting, watching TV, using computers and mobile devices).”  

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Digging into just what kind of effect weather has on physical activity, the researchers collected movement data from 368 adults (average age of 40) who wore a FitBit activity tracker 24 hours a day for 13 months. Daily activity was compared with the daily weather, noting temperature, rainfall, wind, cloud and sunshine, to determine the influence of weather on movement patterns.  

Keeping in mind that the study subjects lived in Adelaide, Australia, where average winter temperatures are more like Vancouver or Victoria than Edmonton or Montreal (ranging from seven to 15 degrees Celsius) and daytime summer temperatures hover around 28 degrees Celsius with low humidity, weather still played a role in how often their citizens exercised.  

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Dry, calm, sunny days with a maximum temperature of 22 C brought outdoor exercisers out in droves. But even during hot days when temperatures exceeded 30 C, physical activity levels remained relatively consistent. That changed when the thermometer reached 40 C. Daily doses of physical activity, especially vigorous exercise, decreased significantly. A similar pattern occurred when rain and wind increased. Light physical activity, on the other hand, was less effected by the changes in temperature.

“It is easier to protect oneself from the elements with clothing and equipment (i.e. umbrella) when being lightly active. However, this becomes more challenging with more demanding forms of activity, such as cycling or running,” the researchers said. 

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It’s not just the recreational exerciser who feels the impact of extreme weather patterns. Active commuters are more likely to leave their bike or walking shoes at home when wind, rain, snow, high heat and humidity dominate the weather patterns. A summer with hot, muggy temperatures will see more people seek the comfort of an air-conditioned car rather than suffer through a hot, sweaty bike ride to and from work.  

These types of peaks and valleys in outdoor physical activity due to weather aren’t a new phenomenon. What is new is that climate change has the potential to create more frequent and lasting unforgiving weather patterns that have an even greater impact on our daily exercise habits. We’ll probably have to travel farther north to find true winter conditions and it will be harder and harder for most Canadian cities to host winter games and activities. Summers will get hotter, with fewer hours in the day when outdoor exercise is comfortable, which means more hours spent being sedentary.

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“Global temperatures are increasing, rainfall patterns are changing, and the frequency of extreme weather events is on the rise,” the researchers said. “As these patterns progress, the number of days each year where weather conditions are favourable for movement behaviours and outdoor environments are accessible for recreation is likely to decrease.”  

With this in mind, community leaders, urban planners and recreation programmers need to look ahead to provide more facilities that are less affected by weather and to design outdoor recreation installations with better protection from the sun and rain. Outdoor sport leagues also need to take into consideration the consequences of playing soccer, football and baseball in the high heat, allowing for more water and shade breaks.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to do our part to become more environmentally responsible. Outdoor exercise is too precious a commodity to lose.


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