Warm breezes and cheerful sunshine beckon us outside throughout summer. By contrast, these dreary winter months can make us yearn to hibernate indoors until spring. Who doesn’t love cozying up by the fireside, snuggling in soft blankets or hunkering down for a movie night? Although it may be tempting, it’s important to fight the desire to hide away all winter. Regular outdoor activity, especially when it’s cold out, offers crucial benefits to our mental, emotional and physical health.
Mental and Emotional Health
Instead of curling up on the couch this winter when you feel tired, cold or worn down, try going outside for a walk. One study conducted by scientists in Finland found that the more time people (teen girls, in this study) spend outside in “green areas,” the more positive perception they have of their general well-being. Researchers have also found that forests, parks and fresh air kick our brains into high gear, improving creativity and boosting our sense of novelty.
Engaging in outdoor activity has also been shown to improve concentration. Children who played outside regularly were less likely to exhibit symptoms of ADHD, and, according to an article published by Harvard, exercising outside mitigated ADHD in children who manifested its symptoms. Ellen Stuart-Haentjens, a Ph.D. candidate in Biology and Integrative Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, sees firsthand the positive effects of the outdoors on her students. “Whenever I take students into the field with me, even in the dead of winter, they are happier and more receptive to learning.”
Stuart-Haentjens isn’t the only one to note these positive effects of the world just outside our doors. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that walking outside — as opposed to indoors on a treadmill, as might be our default during winter months — increases creativity and ability to focus when compared with sitting inside, walking inside or sitting outside.
During winter, some people suffer from mild to moderate seasonal affective disorder (SAD) brought on by the lack of sunlight, which can disrupt sleep patterns and serotonin levels. Symptoms include increased irritability, lethargy, oversleeping or a change in appetite, among others. Severe winter depression affects 4 to 6 percent of people and requires professional counseling or medical attention. But for those with mild SAD, spending time outside is a simple and inexpensive way to cope, as natural light and regular exercise may help reduce negative emotions. Stimulating outdoor activities can also boost mood and reduce stress. One study found that the impact of daily stress was lowered in those who live and work near green spaces.
We all know exercise is good for our bodies. But, while many of us relocate our exercise regimen to the gym during the winter, exercising outside year-round may yield greater benefits. Scientists at the University of Essex found that people who exercise outside are more enthusiastic about their fitness routine, and thus more likely to stick with it. In other words, those of us who plan to be gym rats from November to March are at a higher risk of losing our mojos and packing on the winter pounds compared with those of us who hit the trails, slopes and sidewalks. Researchers have also found that the color green — so prevalent in the evergreen hollies and pines outside — actually makes exercise feel easier.
Maybe all this talk of exercising is wearing you out. After all, many of us feel lethargic in the winter due to shorter daylight hours that frequently trick us into thinking it’s almost time to go to bed. While getting more sleep during the cold months can be beneficial to our immune health, staying inside constantly is not. Just 20 minutes in the fresh air can be the equivalent of one energizing cup of coffee. If you replace a 20-minute nap with a 20-minute walk or run in the brisk air, you’ll feel just as (if not more) awake — and you will have burned a few extra calories to boot.
It’s important for children and seniors to get outside in the winter, too. American children spend an average of six hours a day on sedentary activities such as video games, TV, board games and books. Outside, kids can replace activities like watching TV with sledding, ice skating, snowball fights and snowman-building. Average American adults spend 90 percent of their lives inside, and the amount of time we spend indoors increases even more as we grow older — unfortunate considering that daily time spent outdoors may help older people stay healthy longer. In one study, participants who, at age 70, went outside every day regardless of the season experienced fewer instances of sleep problems and fewer aches and pains at age 77 than participants who spent less time outside. It might come as no surprise, then, that spending time outside has also been shown to help with pain management and the healing process. One study from the University of Pittsburgh found that spinal surgery patients suffered less pain, experienced less stress and used fewer painkillers if they were regularly exposed to natural light.
Stuart-Haentjens says of her experience working outside year-round: “After the field season, I’m always in better shape, as are many of my colleagues. When you spend your days tromping around a forest, wetland or other ecosystem, how could you not be?” The same holds true for all of us: When we spend our days marching through the snow, skiing down slopes or skating on ponds, how could we not be in better health?
Get a Dose of Vitamin D
Sunlight provides 80 to 90 percent of our vitamin D, a critical nutrient that supports cell and bone growth; can reduce inflammation; and helps fight diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, depression and heart attack. So be sure to get outside for a dose of sunshine year-round. In northern climates, winter sunlight may be too weak to stimulate vitamin D creation; in that case, we recommend supplementation.
We often blame winter weight gain on holiday overindulgence. But some researchers blame another, more surprising culprit: too much warmth. The Metabolic Winter Hypothesis suggests our bodies burn calories by keeping us warm. Because today we’re rarely cold, our bodies hang on to these calories. Bodies working to stay warm produce more “brown fat,” which is metabolically active. People who rarely experience cold have more “white fat,” which stores calories that make us gain weight. Thus, getting outside in cold weather may contribute to a healthy weight and a faster, more efficient metabolism.
Try these tips to maximize and enjoy your time outside during brisk winter days.
• Park your car a reasonable distance from your destination, regardless of the weather, and walk the rest of the way.
• Like to host summer barbecues or enjoy sitting by the campfire in fall? Have both during the winter by adding a fire pit to your backyard. Invite friends and family over to make s’mores and drink hot chocolate around your outdoor hearth.
• Have a small pond nearby? It’s never too cold to strap on the skates and glide across the ice. In fact, the colder it is, the thicker (and safer) the ice will be. Or find a local outdoor rink, rent some skates and get out there.
• Shoveling snow is a great excuse to spend some time outside and can be good exercise. Start with your own driveway and sidewalk, then help out a neighbor if you’re enjoying the outdoor exertion.
• Adrenaline-pumping winter activities include sledding, downhill skiing or snowboarding. Want something a little less extreme? Try cross-country skiing for a relaxing way to take in the sights and sounds of a quiet winter afternoon.
• Try walking, running or enjoying your daily lunch break outside, even if it means wearing an extra layer or two. The fresh air and sunshine are sure to give you a boost.
Winter Safety Tips:
While spending time in the cold weather is healthful, use these tips to make sure you and your loved ones stay safe.
• Dress in several thin layers to stay dry and warm. Dress children in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear. Include warm boots, gloves and a hat.
• Prevent frostbite by covering all body parts and going inside when clothing becomes wet. Frostbite occurs when skin and outer tissues become frozen, typically on extremities. Skin first becomes red and tingly, then gray and painful, and finally white, cold and hard with no pain.
• Avoid spending time outdoors in temperatures below negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Watch for hypothermia, which develops in extremely cold temperatures. Warning signs include lethargy, clumsiness, slurred speech and body temperature declines (in extreme cases). If you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, call 911.
While the common misconception exists that we can catch a cold simply by being out in chilly temperatures, it’s not the weather that leaves us vulnerable to this season’s bugs. “What is actually happening is that because of the cold weather, people are more often congregating indoors in closed-off spaces and are at an increased risk for passing and contracting viruses,” says epidemiologist Yasaman Back. Being out in the cold doesn’t make us sick — staying inside with everyone else does!
Amanda S. Creasey lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs. She holds a degree in German from Michigan State University, a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of Denver, and is an active member of the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association and James River Writers. Find her at Mind The Dog Writing Blog.