There is nothing more beautiful than walking outdoors on a sunny spring day. It feels like the snow is melting off your soul.

The kick off walk launching Park People’s Walk in a Park program was perfect in every way. The sun was shining, the snowdrops were popping out of the soil, and Toronto’s Music Garden looked like it was getting ready to burst into full bloom. Against this backdrop,12 enthusiastic seniors in light spring jackets gathered outside of Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre, and stretched in preparation for their first walk together. This first walk on took us through the Music Garden, a gorgeous Toronto park designed by internationally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy.

It’s all part of Park People’s Walk in the Park program, a program providing training and support for 10 seniors groups across Toronto. Each of the 10 selected groups will host 8 walks from April to October. Volunteer senior walk leaders access a full day of training and a walking kit featuring all the equipment they need to walk safely. They also receive a bit of funds for things like promotional materials, equipment and healthy snacks. This great program is generously supported by our partners at Manulife.

Walking for Health

 

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“My doctor told me to walk six blocks a day” said Lorna, a self-proclaimed “water baby” who loves any activity that connects her to the lake. I take a moment to reflect on whether I walk six blocks a day and make a mental note to walk instead of taking the streetcar for the last part of my commute to work. Lorna is clearly outpacing and inspiring me.

Cita, one of the walk leaders, experiences significant weakness on one side of her body and her doctor insisted that walking is essential if she is to avoid further pain and paralysis. And so, Cita walks and leads other seniors in staying mobile, social and accessing all of the benefits of nature. Although the waterfront is ideal for walking, Cita notes that not all seniors in her community take advantage of the benefits afforded by living in close proximity to the boardwalk and the Music Garden.

“I always tell them, stop complaining about aches and pains and walk!”

As a walk leader, Cita is inspiring because she reminds people that if she can do it, they can too.

“I use my walker. I’m like push yourself. I wish more people would do that.”

Cita and Josephine both insist that while it can be difficult to get started walking, once you start moving, any discomfort tends to fade into the background. “I walk through my aches and pains,” Cita says.

Walking for Social Connection

 

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Everyone I speak to on the walk shares that they’re walking because Josephine told them to come. Josephine, another of the group’s walk leaders, regularly participates in classes and activities at the Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre. She is consistently referred to by others as a community influencer; the special kind of person who able to gently convince people to participate because she authentically cares about their well-being.

“If someone doesn’t show up to one of the classes at the Centre,” a walk participant Lisa tells me, “Josephine calls them and makes sure they’re okay. She makes sure they know that they were missed, and that they should come back as soon as they can.”

The Walk in the Park program was a unique opportunity for Josepine to step into the leadership role she was seemingly born to inhabit. “Josephine was the perfect person to co-lead the group,” says Karen Warner, a Director at the Centre. “When we were putting together our Walk in the Park application, we knew she would be incredible at getting other seniors to join in the fun. In fact Cita and Josephine are really the perfect combination to get people inspired and motivated to walk together.”

Many of the Walk participants acknowledge that seniors who live alone are very at risk of feeling lonely and isolated. Walking with this group, however, it’s clear that they’re as keen to socialize as they are to walk. In fact, group pictures punctuated every part of the walk. In fact, this group seemed to take more selfies than a group of high schoolers.

At the day-long Walk in the Park training session, Brianna, Park People’s Project Manager, deliberately advised group leaders to let the group walk at their own pace, and provide lots of opportunities for participants to stop and chat:

“Some of the walk groups stop and tell jokes, some groups sing together, some talk about the nature they see around them. Others, just chat. The key is to build-in time for the participants to get to know each other and to build bonds that will encourage people them to continue participating in the 8-week walk series and stay connected to one another.”

Walking to Connect to Nature:

 

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Special walking guests included a mink, several loons, and a huge variety of birds, including a spectacular red winged blackbird. The Music Garden, where we walked, features an incredible assortment of natural features including a Birch forest, Dawn Redwood trees, a lush field of grasses and a huge assortment of brightly-coloured perennials.

Science has proven that spending time in green spaces — and in “blue spaces,” such as rivers, oceans or ponds — is very important for the health and well-being of older adults. Researchers have found that accessing nature supports physical exercise, increases energy, fights depression, boosts memory and extends the life of seniors.

One participant, Lorna, stops and points out the swans undulating among the waves, and names varieties of flowers she spots along the route Even though many of the participants live very close to the Music Garden, many had never stopped to really experience its beauty. One participant shared that she plans to come back with her family, while another said she didn’t even know that the boardwalk existed but that she planned to use it again in the future.

“Now that we’ve had our first walk” Josephine says, “everyone’s going to tell their friends not to be intimidated by the idea of walking outside.” Because many of the participants live in high-rise communities, it’s easy to imagine word spreading fast.

Lisa emphasizes:

“we’re not the spandex-set and this isn’t Soul Cycle. We just want to get out, get fit and enjoy the company of others. I think as people get to know us more seniors will want to join in.”

 

Personally, I’d chose Walk in the Park over Soul Cycle any day.

 

 

Walk in the Park is generously supported by:

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