Partnering with purpose: How health promoters and Municipal Governments in eastern Nova Scotia encourage outdoor activity during COVID-19

Andrea Donovan, health promoter based in Antigonish walks her dog outside.

Tucked away in the far left-hand corner of the province, health promoters chip away every day, trying to make the communities of Eastern Nova Scotia (Cape Breton, Antigonish and Guysborough areas) healthier. Although it’s not an easy task, the mental health and addictions health promotion team supports the overall health and mental wellness of our communities.

They believe strongly in the work they do, especially now, when a global pandemic is raging on and impacting peoples’ mental wellness in a profound way. 

A health promoters’ day-to-day is quite varied and often includes partnering with municipal government as well as with local grassroots organizations on a range of activities and initiatives. 

 “My colleagues and I have had lots of opportunities to work on community issues with our municipal partners in the past,” said Andrea Donovan, a health promoter based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “We work on things like poverty reduction, cannabis legislation, housing and social isolation, promoting mental wellness and we have a long history of tobacco control policy.”

At present, when gyms, skating rinks and other indoor fitness facilities have been closed, are operating at reduced hours or reduced capacity and/or people don’t feel as safe participating in indoor recreational activities, it has become clear how important it is to have opportunities and proper maintenance of trails for outdoor activity. 

There is numerous research showing the link between outdoor activity and higher mental health outcomes. Many people are aware that peoples’ mental and physical health has shown a decline during the pandemic.  

When Donovan and others in Eastern Nova Scotia learned that their colleagues from Central Nova Scotia (Halifax Regional Municipality, Eastern Shore and West Hants areas) wrote to Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) councillors, it was the natural next step for them to do something similar. 

“Our colleagues in Central Nova Scotia were asked by HRM to provide input on the connection between mental wellness and outdoor recreation, of which there is abundant evidence,” said Donovan. “When we saw that, we wanted to take it upon ourselves to reach out to municipalities in Eastern Nova Scotia.” 

And that’s what they did. 

“Fortunately, my colleagues and I have good relationships with wonderful municipal staff and councillors, either here in Antigonish or up in Cape Breton,” said Donovan. “So we simply picked up the phone or emailed them to ask them to make this even more of a priority in their agendas this year - and the responses rolled in!”

In one response, chief administrative officer for the Town of Port Hawkesbury and professional engineer Terry Doyle wrote, “We are seeing clear evidence of significant increase in use of our facilities this year, hopefully helped by our efforts to ensure proper maintenance. Our trails committee is reviewing methods of making our wood land trails more accessible during the winter months. This includes the planned purchase of trail grooming equipment.”

In a different municipality, recreation and active living coordinator for Victoria County, Lydia Kerr wrote, “I am so glad that so many sectors are getting involved and hope that this work will continue to progress and evolve, covid or no covid. My department has happily partnered with a local trails organization here in Baddeck to have a parking lot plowed this winter. We hope to conduct a thorough evaluation of the initiative and use our findings to leverage similar supports in the coming years.”

Donovan and her colleagues were delighted to see how seriously the municipalities have been taking outdoor recreation.  

“Our municipalities are doing amazing work and deserve so much credit,” she said. “In a time when outdoor activity has become one of the only things that you can do for fun or recreation, it’s so important to keep our sidewalks and trails cleared. And that’s exactly what our Eastern Zone partners have been doing. Kudos to them!”

Donovan was also quick to point out some additional points about the unique situation Nova Scotians have found themselves in during the pandemic. 

She mentioned that due to border and travel restrictions, people are confined to either their own communities, or at the very least to Nova Scotia itself. 

In normal circumstances, this may be considered a bad thing, but health promoters have observed people making the most of it. 

“People are rediscovering Nova Scotia,” she said. “Inverness and Victoria counties have been referred to as ‘little Switzerland’ because of the natural beauty of the mountain chains. It is so great to see people falling back in love with their province. I think this will lead to an increase in community connectedness and pride.”

In addition to being a health promoter, Donovan is also a personal trainer and values the impact of physical activity on overall well-being. 

“It’s clear that people understand the link between outdoor exercise and physical health, but it’s not as common for people to see the strong link between physical activity, being outdoors and mental wellness,” she said. “I hope this pandemic elevates peoples’ understanding that our brains and our bodies work together.  It works on animals too.  Even my dog is in better moods when she gets outside to play!”

 

You are not alone. We are here to help. Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line is available 24 hours 7 days a week at 1-888-429-8167. 

Mental Health and Addictions Intake Line is available weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The toll-free number is: 1-855-922-1122

For our mental health and addiction program and service information and resources, please visit: http://MHAhelpNS.ca

To learn more about the Bloom Program and how it can help you or a loved one with a diagnosed mental health issue, please visit http://www.bloomprogram.ca