words :: Ned Morgan // illustration :: Dave Barnes.
What comes to mind when you think of the Bruce Trail? A conservation corridor that protects greenspace throughout the country’s most populous region? A place where the biodiversity of the Niagara Escarpment is accessible to everyone? Many of us understand the incalculable value of Canada’s longest public footpath, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. But what if we added “chronic disease treatment” to the list of the Trail’s benefits—would you believe it?
If you think you feel good after exercising outside, you may not know the half of it. Research keeps piling up citing frequent exposure to nature as a proven catalyst for better physical and mental health. But what if hiking the Bruce Trail could accomplish something even more encouraging—what if it could provide therapy for those suffering from chronic disease? According to Karen Kowalchuk, the Trail does exactly that.
Kowalchuk suffers from Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and hiking is more than just a pastime she refused to give up after her diagnosis. It is integral to her ongoing resilience. “The Bruce Trail helped me discover more about PD and how it works with me—what I can do and what I can’t do,” she says. “With PD it’s critical to stay safe. You don’t want to fall. But contrary to what you might think, hiking on uneven and unpredictable surfaces is actually easier for me than walking in a straight line or on a street.”
Parkinson’s Disease impairs the body’s ability to tackle automatic activities such as walking—something we do without thinking twice. So why exactly is hiking over roots and rocks easier than walking on pavement? Kowalchuk explains: “I asked my doctor, ‘Why do I have trouble walking on the road, but not as much trouble walking in the bush?’ It turns out that walking on uneven surfaces requires a kind of constant vigilance and a conscious analysis of sensory input, like surface texture, colour, gradient, etc. When your body processes all this input in this conscious way, it utilizes a different neural pathway—one that isn’t as compromised by PD.”
“Hiking utilizes a different neural pathway—one that isn’t as compromised by Parkinson’s.”
The upshot? The simple act of navigating the Bruce Trail can spur the body to outwit chronic disease. “Hiking increases my body’s ability to cope and compensate,” Kowalchuk adds. “You’ve probably heard the term neuroplasticity; a lot of PD research is around how the body can find another way to do the same thing when the normal route isn’t working. Hiking on the Bruce Trail with its varied and changing landscapes provides a different physical challenge every time, depending on the part of the trail you’re hiking. Although my motor ability is impaired by PD, perhaps I am utilizing some new kind of strategy that allows me to remain surprisingly able to navigate any terrain.”
Kowalchuk is aware that others may not agree that someone with PD should hike the Trail. In fact, she doesn’t know anyone else with PD who hikes. (For extra safety she always hikes with trekking poles and sturdy boots, and as part of a group.)
“I participate in a lot of clinical studies. For many people with PD that I know, their exercise is walking or on a machine at home or in the gym—safe activities. Most people don’t want to put themselves out there. But I feel that they’d be surprised at how good it would make them feel to be outside combining exercise and challenge with the beauty and delight that the Trail offers.”
This final sentence could apply to all of us.