Why students should kick back and enjoy nature

Madison Good

Iva Celebic

The Ryerson Student Affairs (RSA) initiative is collaborating with the Canadian Mental Health association to connect students to the Mood Routes program — an event that urges you to get off campus.

Every Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., students meet in the Student Learning Centre and set off on a planned walking route through the city to reach a vast green space.

They plant a “seed,” an intention or idea specific to each destination to be loosely contemplated such as attention restoration or surprise and playfulness.

The walk isn’t just about getting exercise or fresh air, but to revitalize yourself and your academic performance by reconnecting with nature.

Co-founder and Learning and Transition Facilitator Deena Shaffer says moving together outside is a holistic life strategy that is necessary for your well being.

“We really need to repair our connection with nature. We need to make time for this not just because it feels nice, but because it directly supports our well being: mental, emotional, spiritual. That’s the part that we are finding really compelling here at the university,” says Shaffer, who is currently studying for a PhD and researching the impacts of nature-based strategies on higher education.

Research is increasingly emerging about the health benefits associated with time spent outdoors. Studies say being in nature directly helps people de-stress and refocus, reducing anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. Scientifically, vitamin D obtained through sunlight improves your immune system and boosts your serotonin levels, which can make you happier. It has shown to improve your sleep, attention span, memory and creativity.

Shaffer says sitting in the same place, typing for an extra hour in the library will not uplift and invigorate the rest of your day the way a walk outdoors can.

“Being in nature gives us a break, and when we return to the work we actually think more sharply and clearly and it frees up creative thinking and imagination, which is important to every discipline of study,” Shaffer says.

While leading the Mood Routes walks, Shaffer asks participants to indicate their mood prior to leaving campus and reassess it upon return. Students, faculty and staff are all welcome to walk together. Shaffer says Mood Routes aims to build a community where there are no hierarchical relations.

While Ryerson has been working hard to provide more mental health resources, Shaffer says Mood Routes is special because it not only acknowledges the many pressures of youth in transition, but also responds to the growing concerns that are associated with living in big urban spaces — which aren’t easy to take a break from. Green spaces are limited in Toronto and harder to access.

A new study released by Public Health Ontario found living in a metropolitan area can pose significant health threats, most notable dementia.

“The disconnection that so many of us are feeling from nature is amplified given [Ryerson’s] context. We’re right at Yonge and Dundas with traffic and the loop of billboards,” Shaffer says. “It is both the congestion and the frenzied pace we face here, the sort of breathlessness, meeting to meeting, class to class, assessment to assessment,” Shaffer says.

Mood Routes offers a way for students to repair this connection, which science says is something everyone’s body innately wants to do.

“We want to be with plants and breathing in different smells,” says Shaffer, “This is called biophilia, which is a human being’s innate desire to be with nature. Richard Louv worked with (Attention Deficit Disorder), which isn’t a true disorder, it speaks to the disconnection virtually all of us are suffering from, whether we are conscious of it or not.”

Walk destinations in the past have included the Allan Gardens Conservatory, Riverdale Farm, Sugar beach, Corktown Common and Cloud Gardens.

Rain or shine, walk or roll, Shaffer says now is the most pressing time to get outside because of the record-low sunlight we’re exposed to during the day.

“There’s not one person that comes on Mood Routes who doesn’t say, ‘Wow I feel way more alert now, I feel much more happy, much more buoyant,’ and that’s really compelling,” says Shaffer.

 

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