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Physical Environment Level: The Natural Environment

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t get around it.

Focus group participants had two ways of looking at the natural environment. On the one hand, they said being outside provided the most enjoyable and beneficial physical activity opportunities. On the other hand, though, the natural environment can discourage physical activity—especially in terms of weather.

What do we mean by the natural environment? It includes:

  • Natural settings: parks, nature trails, rivers, lakes, and green space
  • Climate: temperature, precipitation, and wind
  • Topography: landscape, trees, mountains, hills, prairies, and woods
  • Air and air quality: clear air, exhaust fumes and pollution, and allergens


How does the natural environment encourage physical activity?

  • People like to connect with nature, with the “great outdoors”
  • Fresh air and sunlight have physical and mental health benefits
  • Couple playing with dog in parkHaving green space and attractive scenery for exercising makes physical activity more appealing
  • Access to nature trails, lakes, and rivers provides opportunities for exploring nature
  • The natural environment provides a variety of ways to be active (e.g., gardening in the summer, shoveling snow the winter, skating on a pond, etc.)


How does the natural environment discourage regular physical activity?

  • Extreme temperatures make it uncomfortable, or even dangerous, to be physically active (e.g., too cold or too hot)
  • Uncleared sidewalks in the winter make it difficult to walk and impossible to use a wheelchair
  • Ice increases the chance of falling and getting hurt
  • Topography can make physical activity difficult
    • A river running though a town limits walking
    • A large hill makes it difficult to walk or cycle to work
  • Wildlife pose comfort and safety issues
    • Fear of encountering coyotes, bears, or other wildlife affects decisions about hiking or walking in natural settings
  • Feelings of insecurity at night or when it is dark
  • An unattractive natural environment makes physical activity less appealing
    • Polluted waterways
    • Garbage on walking paths

[At] minus 20 I don’t want to go out and get on the lift and sit in the DATS bus. I make a little rule for myself—minus 22 or colder, [and] you don’t see me.
Focus group participant with a disability

I would say weather is a big factor for me. When I lived in Edmonton I rode my bike all year round because there’s a lot better snow clearance there. Here with the snow clearance the way it is . . . I find it difficult even to walk in the winter. I don’t know, but I don’t think the county takes their snow removal bylaw very seriously.
Rural focus group participant

I went on a canoe trip from Fort McMurray to Fort Chip. And it just relaxed my body, my mind, and my spirit. . . . For me, that connection—that connection to myself, the connection to the environment, the connection to the waters and the trees and the wind, just everything. It’s not just a physical activity but it has to encompass the whole of a person.
Aboriginal focus group participant from a rural community

It’s kind of hard to walk when the wind is blowing and it’s cold. You just say, “I think I’ll skip today.”
Older adult focus group participant

Supporting Physical Activity in the Natural Environment: An Ecological Approach

Many focus group participants explained how the natural environment both encouraged and discouraged physical activity opportunities. To succeed in addressing this issue, use strategies that incorporate the various levels of an ecological model:
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  • The Individual
  • The Social Environment
  • The Physical Environment
  • Policies and Regulations

Strategies for supporting physical activity in the natural environment


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