In my work in mental health, I noticed a recent trend. My patients started telling me that they weren't exercising anymore, because the weather had gotten cold. This really worried me.
Physical activity is so important for mental health. For sure, there are people who, for health reasons, can't exercise in cold weather, or walk around in snowy or icy conditions (though I know people who attach inexpensive “ice cleats” to the bottom of their shoes and swear by them). And sure, sometimes it's simply way too cold. But most of the time it's not, I'm out in sub-freezing weather all the time these days. With all that’s going on with COVID, this literally keeps me sane.
I don’t mind frigid weather and absolutely love snow, so it doesn’t take much to get me outside. With my patients though, I’ve had to come up with evidence-based, compelling ways to convince them that bundling up and getting out there is worth it.
Here are my top seven reasons for why it’s really, really worth going outside in winter:
1. Natural light brightens a SAD mood and boosts your energy
Many of us suffer from a seasonal dip in mood over the winter due to decreased daylight hours and the weaker nature of the sun’s rays. You can offset this by exposing yourself to outdoor daylight every day, ideally in the morning. Because of my own propensity toward the winter blues, I get outside pretty much every day and go for an extra-long walk on bright sunny winter days.
2. Fresh, cold air is invigorating
Learn to love the cold. Bundle yourself up so you’re comfortable, and walk or move briskly (depending on what you’re doing) so that you get and stay warm. There’s nothing like a chilly day to motivate me to walk fast. Notice how great you feel after a brisk walk in the cold. I love coming home with pink cheeks to a warm house and rewarding myself with a hot cozy drink.
3. Exercise is one of our most effective antidepressants
If I manage to stay active daily through winter, I don’t experience a dip in my mood or motivation. It’s well established that exercise has a substantial mood-boosting impact. Regular exercise has been shown to have the same therapeutic impact over time as antidepressant medication for treating moderate depression.
If you’re feeling low this winter, get out for a walk or engage in any kind of physical activity that you enjoy or have to do (snow shoveling is great exercise!). Notice the way you feel before and after. Exercise helps my mood so much that it’s the first thing I’ll do if I’m having a grumpy or stressful day. (Of course, if you're really struggling with your mood, please be sure to talk to your doctor or a licensed mental health professional about it.)
4. A change of scene will do you good
This COVID winter, most of us have been cooped up inside, in the same space, for way too long already. If working from home, or being inside too much by yourself or with the same group of family or roommates, is getting to you, make a habit of getting outside for a break. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, or longer if you can. Again, pay attention to the way that this outdoor break makes you feel.
5. The outdoors is a perfect venue for practicing mindfulness
The stress and confinement of COVID inspired me to wholeheartedly embrace cross-country skiing as a new winter activity and a primary means of coping this year. I was out on the snow again this morning. I’ve noticed that whether I’m skiing or walking outside, my mind will naturally drift to stressful topics and worries.
As soon as I notice that this is happening, I employ the mindfulness technique of pulling myself into the present moment. I shift my focus to watching the snowflakes fall, or listen to the crunch of my skis or snow boots. Over and over again I do this, such that the majority of my walk or ski is defined literally by peace of mind.
6. Getting outside will relieve your stress
Are you frustrated? Frightened? Annoyed? Irritated? Overwhelmed? I could add more words to the list; most of us have experienced these at some point in the last few months, more often than we’d like.
Take those emotions outside. Whether you’re walking (or stomping along), skating, snow shoveling, or whatever, this will help you release stress, both physically and emotionally.
The other day, I went for a vigorous cross country ski on my own. Every time I jabbed my pole into the icy snow and pushed myself forward, I could feel COVID frustrations leaving my body. I was surprised to discover how many frustrations I apparently have! It felt really good. Not everyone has access to winter sports, but a good stompy walk does the soul good too.
7. In times of social restrictions, the outdoors can be a place to (safely) connect
In my region, indoor and outdoor gatherings of any kind have been banned for many weeks. One thing we are allowed to do: We can take a distanced walk outside with a friend or two. We can also don masks, keep our distance, and make use of local ski hills to have fun, get moving and be around other people. A neighboring region still allows groups of up to ten people to go ice skating as long as they, too, keep a safe distance.
I don’t know what the “rules” are where you are, but if you have any outdoor social options available to you, make use of them. I wouldn’t normally be one to invite a friend for a distanced walk in the cold, but I sure am now. What a sweet joy that little bit of connection is in a time of so much social limitation.
Even if you normally think of yourself as someone who hibernates in winter, I encourage you to change that definition of yourself this year. It will go a long way toward boosting your spirits and improving your quality of life during this dark, difficult COVID winter.
But more than that, you might be surprised to discover that you really enjoy doing certain activities in the cold. Like me, you might be amazed to discover that you actually weirdly love winter. That’s a discovery, and a gift, that could last you for life.
© Copyright 2020 Dr. Susan Biali Haas