TORONTO -- It’s a crisp winter morning, but the cold isn’t keeping Anne Mirgalet-Kennedy indoors. Several times a week, the Toronto woman joins the Midtown Raviners Athletic Club (MRAC) for hikes.

“I like the physical challenge, and I like the social part,” says Mirgalet-Kennedy, who takes part in MRAC excursions several times a week.

Sanjay Coehlo, meanwhile, says before joining the group, he had no idea what natural “treasures” Toronto possessed, referring to the city’s ravines and the Beltline Trail.

Coehlo said, however, what’s almost as important to him now, is the sense of connection he gets from the group during what has otherwise been a time of social isolation.

“My partner and I, we’ve been at our apartment, every day working from home, and it’s a bit of an escape,” he said. “It’s just like, wow, at this moment in time, this isn’t happening, and that’s great.”

The free club — which now has more than 5,000 members — was founded by Ken Bower in April 2019. Originally, it was designed with fitness in mind, with Bower hoping to introduce Torontonians to the ravines and hiking trails in their midst.

During the pandemic, the club has evolved into something more.

“To have a group where people can come out, whatever the limits are, 10 people, five people, we try to make it work. It’s a big part of people’s weeks,” Bower said.

Fellow organizer, Lorrie Parrot, adds, “It’s definitely turned into, through the pandemic, a great thing for mental health. A way for people to release and get together now.”

A fall Angus Reid study found that those suffering from both loneliness and social isolation has increased to one in three people. Year over year, the number of what the research group calls “the desolate” has risen from 23 per cent of the population to 33 per cent.

“We are a lot less tolerant, we’re a lot more reactive,” psychotherapist Kristin Greco said.

The Newmarket-based psychotherapist said that in her practice she’s seeing more depression in people of all ages, and relationship breakdowns.

“You can’t get all of your needs met from, you know, your spouse, or just one family member, right? It takes a village.”

Greco says we expect too much from our partners, and stresses the importance of connecting with others — either outdoors or online. She suggests people join fitness or shared-interest clubs, or even just find the time to dine with a friend over Zoom.

“Even just on Facebook, right? There’s, you know, a lot of shared experiences happening,” Greco said.

In Markham, a large, diverse group of women is keeping connected through weekly Zoom calls. They used to meet in person at the Box Grove Community Centre, but moved online during Ontario’s second lockdown.

“It’s a group of women who have come together with different skill sets, who really try to empower and connect women in our community,” says organizer Tricia Ali.

The group has grown from three women to more than 40. Every Thursday evening at 7 p.m. they meet online, and are joined by a guest speaker.

“Women really get an opportunity to come out, to get some information, have a really good resource centre, and really get to communicate and share what’s going on in their lives, or just chat, have a tea, a coffee.”

Nitisha Patel is a regular attendee, who says she makes sure she attends, even if she’s already in her pyjamas.

“It makes me happy joining the Thursday meetings. People are empowering each other and motivating each other,” says Patel. “Even once the meetings are over, we’re texting each other on WhatsApp. Like, ‘Hey, did you go for your daily walk today?’”

Greco says while meeting online is not ideal, it is a very good option at a time people can’t physically be together.