The Merits of Active Commuting

10703435_10152703071030042_1436081520_oIn 2008, when I lived in Calgary and often drove five blocks to a convenience or grocery store, I wrote an article about active commuting. Most articles I write don’t change the way I think and live, but this particular article made me a zealous convert to an active commuting lifestyle.

“Fit to Ride: Active Commuters Reduce Environmental Footprint, Save Money, and Improve Fitness,” appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Impact Magazine. As a part of my research, I interviewed a well-respected author and journalist, Gordon Jaremko, about his commitment to active commuting. What he said about active commuting, cycling in particular, resonated with me. “It’s just a fun, addictive way to get around that makes you know your community better, from its topography to its weather, wildlife, sights, sounds, and smells. A one- to two-hour bicycle commute is the complete opposite of spending time in a car. In a car, it’s expensive, dead, boring, and frustrating time,” Gordon said.

I instantly and completely subscribed to his view of active commuting. Since that day, active commuting has been my ideal, although I do fall short occasionally. When I moved back to Winnipeg from Calgary in late August 2009, I left my car behind. I dusted off my bike, got a good pair of walking shoes and began using my body to get around Winnipeg. I made a decision to live just outside the city’s core so I could active commute to my downtown job. Because I live near the chronically bottlenecked Osborne Street, cycling to work gets me there faster than driving. It also prevents me from starting my day in a road rage. I am not a morning person and I cannot think of anything worse than being stuck in traffic on my way to work.

Cycling is my favourite way to active commute, but many people walk, take public transit, roller blade or even run to work. When I use my body to get to work, I arrive feeling positive, alert and focused. Everybody knows that exercise keeps the body healthy, but it also keeps the mind healthy by reducing stress and activating neurotransmitters that help people focus.

Now I am not going to lie: committing to a lifestyle of active commuting ain’t easy. I walk around with baby wipes to clean myself up after a ride on a hot day or freshen up at my gym before work. I have business-attire wardrobe in my office. When I grocery shop, I do find it cumbersome to carry 30 pounds of groceries home from my local grocery store, but I do burn about 150 calories on the trek back.

Right now, I am a single, childless free spirit. I probably could not maintain this lifestyle if I had kids. Kids have lessons or need to be dropped off at birthday parties. Some of my friends who have children still make an effort though. For instance, a good friend in Calgary drops her son off, leaves her vehicle at one of the designated parking spots and then takes the CTrain the rest of the way to work. There are so many variations on active commuting and just about everyone can make something work.

Hopping on my bike in the morning, feeling the sunshine on my face (protected by SPF 60 of course), seeing people walk their dogs, hearing crows negotiate plans with their caws, and smelling freshly baked bread as I ride past the Fort Garry Hotel makes my soul sing. I just wouldn’t have that experience in a car.

What’s good for the mind and body is also good for the environment. By choosing to cycle to work, I am helping to improve our air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I am burning calories instead of fossil fuels. As a curvy endomorph-mesomorph hybrid, burning calories and building muscles is my only hope of staying compact and sprightly.

Now, it’s quite easy to tout the benefits of active commuting when the weather is beautiful. Come January, when the temperature plummets to -30oC, I know I will want to buy a car. But once again, I will look to Gordon Jaremko for inspiration. Legend has it that he tested out a new winter jacket during a work trip to Fort McMurray by walking to the airport with a temperature of -40oC. If Gordon can do it, I can do it. I love winter cycling, but it’s too dangerous in rush hour. Walking will be my active commute of choice in the winter. Stay tuned for reports about frosty, invigorating walks.

Five strategies to beat the winter blues

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It’s 8:00 a.m. in Winnipeg in late August. The sky is the colour of nicotine-stained apartment walls. It’s no December sky, but it’s certainly not proper August light—and it’s only going to get worse.

For as far back as I can remember, the shorter days of fall ushered in a more sober, down-to-business mood. But some years, the lack of light put me flat out of business; and the December solstice, the darkest day of the year, usually marked my lowest low.

I’d start to feel draggy in October. I found it harder to get out of bed and my energy would start lagging around 3:00 p.m. In an effort to pick myself up, I’d often go for a sugary carb like a muffin. (Back in the ‘90s, we actually thought muffins were a healthy snack, not a carby calorie bomb). Invariably, I would get a burst of energy followed by a crash that would leave me feeling even more lethargic.

I also noticed a shift in my thinking. Self-doubt and negative thoughts would start to take hold in the fall; whereas in the summer, I could just brush them away like a pesky mosquito. Performing mundane tasks would suddenly feel overwhelming. I grew increasingly irritable with people and would occasionally say the things I would only think during lighter months.

By November, I would be in a full seasonal depression. I would gain weight from trying to perk myself up with the carbs, which would cause me to further spiral into a bad place. For many years, I had a winter wardrobe and a summer one.

By December, I felt like I was in a bleak, black-and-white Scandinavian film shot in the dead of winter and my life seemed futile and doomed. Every minute would be packed with more existential angst than Woody Allen film. Somehow I survived these winter funks, but it was downright miserable. When I finally got the official diagnosis that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) just over a decade ago, I felt relieved because the sleep specialist not only gave me a diagnosis; he offered viable solutions.

Over the years, I have mastered the art and science of combating winter blues. Here is my attack strategy:

1. Light Therapy

I start using a portable light therapy device in late August. My light therapy product of choice is The Litebook. Clinical research showed the wavelengths of light emitted by The Litebook likely assists in regulating the body’s melatonin levels. It also increases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. I like the Litebook because they conducted clinical trials and it’s Canadian company. I use the device for 30 minutes each morning and it staves off that groggy, draggy feeling.

2. Exercise

Although it is often the last thing I want to do when I’m feeling lethargic and it’s minus 30 out, exercise instantly elevates my mood, clears my thinking and makes me feel vivacious. I exercise as much for the mental benefits as I do for the physical. I work out at least five times a week, and I feel best when I exercise long and hard enough to break a sweat.

3. Proper Nutrition

Although my body wants nothing but processed carbs, I’ve succumbed enough times to know that giving my body sugar and starch will only end in sugar spikes and crashes and weight gain. I strive to eat lean and clean because there’s nothing more depressing than popping buttons and splitting pants—and that is what will happen if I don’t watch it. When I fall off the wagon like I did last weekend (mmmmm BBQ chicken pizza), I do not sweat it because that will only lead to more self-sabotage, but I do get right back on the wagon.

4. No Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant and it’s full of sugar and empty calories. For those reasons, I abstain. I can remember years that I felt in tipsy good cheer, but it was an inauthentic buzz and I would always feel blue the next day. If you suffer from any kind of depression, putting a depressant in your body is generally a bad idea, although self-medicating with alcohol is extremely common.

5. Bright Lights, Sparkles and Charity

I used to despise Christmas and all the emotionally exploitative marketing and commercialization that goes with it. Railing against it, however, did not help my mood. Over the years, I have learned to love lights, the festively decorated houses and all the sparkly, glittery wrappings. I regard them as a kind of light therapy. I also make sure I have glittery toenails so I can look at the sparkles when I practise hot yoga.

Charity also helps. By focusing on those in need, I get into the spirit of giving. One year I was Santa to a senior. “My” senior provided a list of things she wanted and I shopped around for toiletries that I thought she’d like, consulted beauty advisors about what body sprays seniors prefer and got her a sweater the colour of the flower after which she was named. It did wonders for my soul and I get excited when I think about her opening all the goodies I put together for her.

So that’s what works for me. I could easily succumb to it and live like a nocturnal beast for half the year, but I do not like to waste time and suffer needlessly. Bright light therapy, exercise, good sleep hygiene, proper nutrition and sleep and soul activities keep me in good cheer even during the darkest days of the year.