Neighbourhood environment facilitators and barriers to outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic

Results from: “Neighbourhood environment facilitators and barriers to outdoor activity during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada: A qualitative study”

McCormack GR, Petersen JA, Naish C, Ghoneim D, & Doyle-Baker PK.


COVID-19 & Physical Activity

Canada reacted to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic by implementing conditions to lower the spread of the disease (1). Closures of educational and day-care facilities, non-essential businesses and private and public reaction facilities were among some of the guidelines alongside physical distancing (2). The new measures reduced opportunities for physical activity, while encouraging sedentary behaviours (3). Physical activity is beneficial for mental health which may be an issue for some individuals during the pandemic due to increased anxiety (3). Research suggested that physical activity decreased, and sedentary behaviour increased among adults in the early stages of the pandemic (4,5). This recent study explored how the built environment supported physical activity in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in a Canadian city.

Outdoor Activity During COVID-19

Between April and June 2020, 12 residents of north central Calgary participated in a semi-structured interview via telephone or video conference. Participants were asked their perspectives, experiences and challenges in physical distancing, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, general health and built features during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the interviews, three key themes were identified: (1) Adaptations in the use of outdoor space for physical activity, (2) Importance of connectivity and destinations, and (3) Navigating interactions with people outdoors.

Adaptations in the use of outdoor space for physical activity:

Many participants began exercising outdoors to replace their regular indoor physical activity. They also reported exploring more of the city outdoors, such as new parks and pathways than they had previously done.

Importance of connectivity and destinations:

Participants discussed the parks and pathways they frequently used, but also wished they had access to other built features within their neighbourhood. Pathways were deemed essential by many participants, particularly those that could be shared by multiple users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.

Navigating interactions with people outdoors:

Participants noted other people were also spending more time outdoors and reported parks and pathways as being busier. They mentioned more time was spent outdoors with family members and friends. Outdoor activity was considered safer than indoor activity, which agreed with public health recommendations at the time.

The findings of this study suggest that the built environment was essential for many individuals to have as an opportunity for outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parks, pathways, and sidewalks were the main built features mentioned as supporting physical activity during this period. The pandemic did impact the physical activity levels and habits of individuals in different ways, as some routines were more shifted than others. In summary, well-connected pathway systems, large parks and greenspaces are important for physical distancing and outdoor activity during a pandemic.

Suggested Citation: McCormack GR, Petersen J, Naish C, Ghoneim D, Doyle-Baker PK. Neighbourhood environment facilitators and barriers to outdoor activity during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada: a qualitative study. Cities & Health. 2022 Jan 11;0(0):1–13.

Written by Hallie Horvath; Infographic by Hallie Horvath & Calli Naish, BAS



1. Detsky AS, and Bogoch II. 2020. COVID-19 in Canada: experience and response. JAMA, 324 (8), 743–744. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.14033

2. Government of Canada. 2020. Physical distancing: how to slow the spread of COVID-19. distancing.html [Accessed: 14 January 2021].

3. McCormack GR., et al., 2020. Parent anxiety and perceptions of their child’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. Preventive Medicine Reports, 20, 101275. doi:10.1016/j. pmedr.2020.101275

4. Rhodes RE., et al., 2020. Correlates of perceived physical activity transitions during the COVID-19 pandemic among Canadian adults. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, 12 (4), 1157–1182. doi:10.1111/aphw.12236

5. McCormack GR., et al. 2021. Perceived anxiety and physical activity behaviour changes during the early stages of COVID-19 restrictions in community-dwelling adults in Canada: a cross-sectional study. BMJ Open, 11 (8), e050550. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-050550