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Clara Hughes: Why exercise is so important for good mental health

Sunday is mental health day

Clara Hughes Photo by: Simon Baker

Clara Hughes—the six-time Olympic medallist, two in cycling, four in speedskating—has become one of Canada’s most well-known advocates for mental health through her work with the Bell “Let’s Talk” initiative. Hughes recently did a podcast with her former speed skating teammate Anastasia Bucsis, looking back at her long career. Hughes’s attitude about her mental health has certainly changed following those many years on both the bike and skates. Now, she can look back at the pressures of racing through a calmer, wiser perspective. She also believes that exercise, whether it is cycling, running or her latest passion, hiking, is key to mental health.

One of Hughes’s proudest races was the Sydney Olympics when she finished 43rd, which, at first glance for a multiple Olympic medallist, doesn’t sound so impressive. However, two things impeded her ride that day: one was physical, one was mental. The first was a whooping cough. The second was that she and her Saturn teammates had just lost their teammate Nicole Reinhardt in a horrific crash during a bike race, less than two weeks earlier. For her, a 43rd was a personal victory, given the circumstances.

When Hughes looks back at her career, she reflects on many things: the mental stress an athlete feels and the never-ending pressure to stay fit, to stay lean, and to succeed. Hughes’s reflections of her past serves as a bridge to how she’s used her past to become an advocate for mental health. Although she’s definitely proud of her accomplishments, and certainly misses the incredible level of fitness she’d attained, she’s OK with slowing down and enjoying life. In the old days, riding and nutrition were paramount: now she prefers riding with friends to coffee shops with treats and good conversation.

Along with cycling, Hughes has found great comfort in walking. She’s walked almost 20,000 km all over the continent. This summer alone she’s walked The Pacific Crest Trail, The Continental Divide Trail, and The Great Divide Trail. Hiking has become a great source of joy for her, and a way to process traumas that she endured as a child or adult. Her walks have become meditative.

Hughes lives in Canmore and her former teammate is based in Toronto. Hughes has mountains in her backyard; Anastasia, not so much. She asked Hughes if it’s a little easier to get outside and find mindfulness and meditation in Alberta. Hughes reminds us that in Canada we are so blessed to have so many outdoor spaces that we can use to find that peace and reflect.

“You know, in every city and in Canada, there’s public green spaces, there’s bike paths, there’s places to pause and it’s just a matter of finding a little bit of time,” she says. It’s important, she says, in this fast-paced world full of stress and anxiety, to use exercise and the outdoors to take pauses, even if they are short. That means getting off your phone, and using exercise and nature as a way to restore your mental health.

“I’m all about disconnecting to reconnect, disconnecting from all of this chaos, to reconnect with just, I don’t know, mind, body, spirit, self,” Hughes says.

Mental Health Day is Sunday, Oct. 10.