Falling for Niagara




How a waterfall became a top destination for active adventurers.

In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Jerome, traveled from New Orleans to Niagara Falls for his honeymoon. Local lore says he helped turn the area into a top honeymoon destination as he likely regaled others with stories of bright blue-green water, lush landscapes, and towering rock formations. Fast forward more than 200 years and Niagara is still a destination for honeymooners, as well as for countless others who see the region as an outdoor fitness and adventure destination.

Like their visitors, the falls are constantly in motion. Formed over 12,000 years ago by melting glaciers, more than 3,000 tons of water flows over the edge of the falls each second into the basin below. Niagara has long been the No. 1 destination for Americans visiting Canada, but it is much more than just a neighborly natural wonder: It’s a unique place for those seeking an outdoor escape from their everyday lives, with mental and physical benefits they might not have anticipated.

Much like Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” “We need the tonic of the wilderness.” Being in nature is more than just an experience; researchers have proven that exercising in the outdoors increases positive feelings and decreases the symptoms of depression. And places like Niagara provide the perfect natural setting.

“There’s a lot of great science regarding our endocrine system and our hormones, and how exercise can help regulate emotions like stress, depression and anxiety,” says Margaret Wallis-Duffy, a wellness expert and C.E.O of Wallis for Wellness, an integrated health clinic in Ontario, Canada.

“Exercise helps to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood [and]the release of ‘happy’ hormones like dopamine and serotonin, which help regulate cortisol—the stress hormone,” Wallis-Duffy says. “You add nature into that—where you are breathing in the clean air from the trees and the negative ions of streams and waterfalls—and it helps improve your immune function, normalize breathing rates, decrease blood pressure and lower stress levels.”

Scientists around the world are discovering more about the positive mental effects of outdoor exercise. In a recently-published study, Martin Niedermeier, a PhD student at the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that those who went on a mountain hike reported greater calmness and elation, and a decrease in anxiety compared with those who exercised on a treadmill or not at all.

“There is evidence that nature/green environment is providing a lower complexity and less (visual) stimuli compared to an urban or an indoor setting. This is discussed as a reducing factor for perceived stress and might also result in more positive affective responses,” Niedermeier said in an interview.

Along with the psychological benefits of exercising outside, there are quite a few physical benefits, too. John Stanton, founder of Running Room, says that running outdoors is great for the proprioceptors, or the nerves that help us create balance. It also helps build up muscles in a different way than if you were on a treadmill. “You’re making turns, changing your stride, going up and downhill in various weather conditions,” Stanton says.

One of the more popular areas for outdoor running in Niagara is the Niagara River Recreation Trail, says David Adames, Chief Operating Officer for Niagara Parks. From the recreation trail, you can access a staircase that takes you down to Niagara Glen where you can run on nearly two and a half miles of trails near the water. Additional stairs accessed along the trails lead to a whirlpool, which is about 280 feet from the recreation trail.

There is also a cross-border marathon that originally started in 1974. Runners enjoy trekking through the beautiful Niagara scenery as well as the excitement of running through two countries in one race.

Stanton says that while starting out on a treadmill is great, there is nothing that beats going on a run outside to reduce stress. “There’s a thrill to it and a sense of achievement, empowerment, and accomplishment.”

With Niagara Parks’ trails and paths spanning nearly 35 miles alongside the Niagara Parkway between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, visitors are given a chance to explore the outdoors while experiencing one of nature’s most magnificent marvels.

The wildlife is abundant too. You may see foxes or deer or witness vast gatherings of migrating birds. There are also a number of historic sites along the trail. Closer toward the Niagara Glen Nature Centre, the trees diminish as the beauty of the gorge unfolds. “It’s a very unique geographic space with a lot of geological history,” Adames says. “It was glacially carved out over thousands of years.” Niagara Glen offers plenty of moderate to difficult hiking trails, the most challenging being the Whirlpool Trail, which features steep sections and uneven surfaces but guides you to the Niagara Whirlpool.

Since 2015, Niagara Parks has taken a special interest in wellness as a way to tune into its visitors. Along with emphasizing the benefits of exercise on its many trails, Niagara Parks recently achieved Feast ON certification for all five of its restaurants, meaning at least 25 percent of all food and drink is supplied by local farmers and distillers. “We are thinking not only about the benefits of eating locally-sourced food, but also how the food is prepared and served,” Adames says.

Recently, Niagara Parks added a new one-of-a-kind wellness experience to its activities roster: Namaste Niagara. Launched in 2016, it gives 40 people at a time a chance to do yoga on the waterfall’s lower observation deck at Journey Behind the Falls on select days during the summer. “The idea of restorative yoga taking place in such a unique place allows people to fully appreciate nature and the power of the falls,” Adames says.

Exercise is also possible on the water. Kayaking is a full body workout without being too extreme, says Lisa Palmer, owner of Niagara Kayak Rentals. “It really involves the use of your core, but you also need to engage your legs in order to paddle,” she says. “With the right posture, you are even exercising the muscles in your fingers. After two hours even on a more leisurely ride, you’ll feel it,” she says. Niagara Kayak Rentals leads guided tours generally departing from one of two locations. The kayak trip departing from Queens Royal Park is more leisurely and allows kayakers to view historic sites and animal life.

But the more popular route, Palmer explains, is one departing from Queenston Heights, at the base of the escarpment. Paddlers launch in a more turbulent area but enjoy breathtaking scenery and a faster, one-way current. Palmer also explains the added mental benefit to being out on a kayak. “It’s quieter out on the water and you can really be a part of nature,” she says.

Those looking for a little more adventure can climb the walls of the gorge in designated bouldering areas. More extreme sports like these offer their own kind of health benefits. Studies have shown that short bursts of adrenaline can help with focus and controlling fears and anxiety. And like other sports, they can also leave you with an increased feeling of happiness.

Niagara offers an extreme experience in ziplining to the falls. It’s an adventure that’s available to everyone, no matter their physical ability, says Rich Merlino, general manager at Wildplay Niagara Falls, the company that runs the zip line and an adventure ropes course near the falls.

“I like to refer to it as a rush of adrenaline but in a low-risk environment,” he says. Because of its seated harness system, anyone over the age of seven can zip line, even those who may need the assistance of a wheelchair. “It’s a really liberating experience,” Merlino says.

You also get to see the falls from a viewpoint not many others can, zipping through the mist at up to 40 miles an hour.

An added bonus to exercising and exploring near Niagara is its mass production of negative ions. While there are molecules all around us, this type can affect your wellbeing, says Wallis-Duffy.

A quick chemistry refresher: Ions are clusters of atoms with a positive or negative charge. Computers and other forms of technology are known creators of positive ions. Some allergens also have a positive charge. Free radicals are molecules that are missing an electron, and are often found in urban areas. The collection of free radicals in the body has been found to contribute to multiple underlying health conditions. Negative ions, on the other hand, counterbalance these atomic structures. They are said to attach to positive ions and allergens, causing them to fall from the air, as well as attach to free radicals, neutralizing them.

“All of these things we take in can have a negative impact on our immune system, on our cardiovascular system,” Wallis-Duffy says. “Having more negative ions, which we can get from being near waterfalls, running water or surf, helps to neutralize those free radicals we take in.”

Niagara’s sense of happiness may be partially found in its visitors—honeymooners, exercise enthusiasts, and families—but it may also have something to do with its air.

“When you are increasing your oxygen through exercise, and then being outdoors with negative ions, overall you are feeling happier because you are regulating your cortisol levels,” Wallis-Duffy says of the Niagara region.

Enjoying the outdoors doesn’t necessarily have to be strenuous, especially in Niagara, Adames says. “Simply taking a walk through Niagara Parks can bring you a feeling of relaxation as you explore the abundance of trails, gardens, and green spaces found along the shores of the Niagara River. There’s nothing quite like it.”

This article first appeared in www.newyorker.com

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