Flint’s outdoor spaces provide valuable fitness -- and mental health -- outlets for residents

FLINT, Michigan -- When Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, an author and marine biologist, spoke to a group of Flint students participating in the National Clean Water Collective’s Pen PALS Youth Forum this summer, he praised a maligned but vital resource in the city.


“The Flint River is beautiful and is my favorite thing about Flint,” Nichols said. “It breaks my heart that it is thought of any other way. The value of water is ecological, not just economic. There is an emotional connection to water.”


This summer, in the midst of a pandemic, the Flint River proved to be a vital outlet for people in search of opportunities to get outside, experience nature, and reset. Kayak Flint, a livery operated by the Flint River Watershed Coalition, just wrapped up its season last weekend and had more than 1,000 people kayak on the river this summer. Through July, Kayak Flint had seen a 221 percent increase in participant numbers over last year.


“The Kayak Flint staff believe that part of the increase is due to word of mouth as we enter our second full season of rentals,” said Sarah Scheitler, Kayak Flint manager. “But we all agree that the numbers are also higher because folks feel stuck at home due to COVID-19 and kayaking provides a safe way to get out of the house and have a unique experience.”


Several Flint organizations and fitness providers have made use of parks and other green spaces in the city to provide exercise classes this summer. Many running groups in Flint, who would traditionally participate in the Crim Fitness Foundation’s training program, for example, still met regularly and came up with unique ways to run or walk together safely. Marcia Faye McGee, a yoga instructor, has done outdoor drop-in yoga sessions downtown Flint nearly Saginaw and Second streets during the summer.

“It felt really good, people were able to catch up with each other, share information, and just the idea of being able to move together in an open space made the world feel a little bit more normal,” McGee said. “We’d see Crim runners just running by, have social interactions that we’d totally missed, and it was just very joyful to see each other and breathe together.”


McGee’s yoga sessions have also raised money for various Flint nonprofits. Participants make donations each session and the proceeds go to a rotating group of organizations that provide different services to the community.


Marquita Adams, founder of Harambee Wellness, did outdoor fitness classes near the Flint sign in Brush Alley this summer. She said that the mix of activity with socializing helped people physically and mentally.


“We were cooped up in the house for so long,” Adams said. “Being out in the open, you have the opportunity to be social at a safe distance. I’ve been doing classes outdoors downtown at the Flint sign, and a lot of participants say they may not be able to do everything in terms of the workout, but they get to be around people. Just that social engagement is a mood booster for your mental health. I get to be around people and see smiling faces and see people interacting and having a good time. There’s also a health benefit too, people feel good about themselves because they’re moving their body


The ability to get outside, socialize, and possibly even unplug for brief periods of time is vital in the midst of a pandemic, a contentious and consequential election, and social unrest and protests over racial injustice all summer. Morgan Overstreet, a Flint-based mental health therapist, said that it is important to find balance.


“The events that we are living through are making it challenging for folks to catch their breath,” Overstreet said. “As human beings, we’re often navigating our personal struggles and trying to care for friends and loved ones, so when there’s one thing after another at a societal level, there’s this ruminating thought of not only, “How much more can I take?” but also, “How much more can we take as a society?” The balance is in continuing to find joy in the present, despite concern and planning for the future. The better we care for ourselves, the better we are able to care for others.”


Although many fitness instructors moved classes outside over the summer out of necessity (Michigan’s Stay at Home order only recently allowed gyms to reopen), exercising outdoors also offers added mental health benefits.


“Simple physical activity or stepping outside to feel the wind or the sun can, without question, help reduce stress,” Overstreet said. “Physical activity gets your mind off of unhelpful, unhealthy, and/or negative thoughts. On top of that, physical activity increases our capacity to feel and handle challenging emotions. When you go outside, you have an opportunity to look around at what’s in front of you. This can help you feel something different because it reminds you that things are constantly changing, just like your feelings, just like your thoughts, just like your perceptions about yourself and the world.”


Many health and fitness instructors also either started or ramped up virtual offerings during the pandemic, something they will continue now that the weather is getting colder and outdoor fitness opportunities are becoming more scarce. McGee regularly posts information about her virtual offerings on her Instagram and Twitter pages.


Adams offers a variety of virtual classes, with information available on her website. “It was on my radar to start doing it (virtual classes), but it was a learning curve,” she said. “I set up a whole studio in my basement.”


Overstreet noted that, although the pandemic forced a lot of organizations to immediately shift things like fitness, counseling, community education, and other services to online formats, having those things continue in the post-pandemic world is potentially a good thing.


“Before the pandemic, accessibility to classes, programs, counseling, and other services may have been limited because of physical distance, inadequate transportation, differences in mobility, and/or one’s anxiety for example,” she said. “However, with virtual programs, that barrier has gone away. We now have access to professionals across the state, which is extremely beneficial to those who live in smaller communities. That said, face-to-face services continue to be a necessity for those who have limited internet access or a lack of privacy or safety in their home. It’s my hope that everyone can have their needs met moving forward.”


Another unexpected but positive outcome of shifting to virtual formats for Flint area instructors has been the ability to reconnect with Flintstones who have moved to other areas, or even find new audiences.


“I will definitely continue with virtual because it’s expanded my ability to reach people outside of Flint,” Adams said.


“It gave me a chance to see old friends who had moved and renewed those connections,” McGee said. “We’ve had people participate in classes from as far as Europe, Florida, California, just to be around their Flint people. If you can find a positive, this is one of them. Virtual programs keep people connected to Flint, and some of our donations (to local nonprofits) have come in from out of state too.”


As it gets colder outside, Overstreet recommends slowing down, focusing on mindfulness, and even experimenting with different indoor workouts and activities that feel “satisfying rather than burdensome.” She also noted the importance of continuing to consider your own mental health and check in on others. Mental health resources she suggests for information or to find nearby therapists include Inclusive Therapists, Open Path, Black Girl Therapy, and Psychology Today.


“If you’re reading this and you’re receiving help, have the courage to share your experience(s) with others, so that others can have the courage to do this work too,” Overstreet said. “If you’re reading this and you’ve never been to therapy, know that therapy is a safe place, without judgment, where you don’t have to filter what you want to share and you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not. To anyone out there struggling, there’s no shame in feeling overwhelmed or crying; these things make you a human being.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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