The hardest part is getting out the door!
This is a mantra that I have had to repeat to myself almost every day in winter for as long as I can remember. While I love being active and have spent decades exercising outdoors regularly during the frigidly cold New England winters, I also really enjoy feeling warm and cozy. This proclivity towards coziness makes getting out the door the greatest challenge to any outdoor endeavor that I embark on in winter.
That being said, once outside and moving in the cold winter air, I almost always note how alive and invigorated I feel. And, I have never, not once, returned from an outdoor winter activity, be it a walk, a run, or something more extreme like a backcountry ski adventure, feeling anything but gratitude that I had decided to commit to heading outside. There is a good reason for this, as being active during the cold winter months, even for a short period of time, can have a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
With regard to the health benefits of exercising outdoors in winter, the benefits are significant and many of them have to do with the exercise itself and simply moving our bodies, which most of us tend to do less of in the cold winter months. As you are all likely aware, the health benefits associated with exercise, even something as simple as a 30-minute walk, are extensive. Benefits to blood pressure, cholesterol, blood flow and circulation, metabolism, bone density, mood, sleep, anxiety and stress, and longevity can all be experienced by engaging in regular exercise and, conversely, can all be negatively impacted by inactivity.
In addition to the benefits associated with exercise itself, outdoor exercise in winter provides a valuable opportunity to obtain necessary sunlight exposure. The balance of daylight and darkness during the winter months have a profound effect on our sleep and wakefulness cycles, known as our circadian rhythm. Exposure to light during the day stimulates your body and mind and encourages feelings of wakefulness, alertness, and energy. Too little sunlight during the day can lead to issues such as physical and mental fatigue, disrupted sleeping and eating patterns, insomnia, depressed mood and even Seasonal Affective Disorder. In addition, insufficient exposure to sunlight during the winter months can negatively impact our levels of Vitamin D, a critical nutrient obtained primarily via sunlight exposure and necessary for optimal sleep, bone health, muscle strength, mood, immune functioning, and cardiac health. Unfortunately, due to people’s tendency towards avoiding the outdoors when it is cold, many have insufficient Vitamin D levels and experience related health consequences, often unbeknownst to them.
Exposure to nature itself is an additional variable associated with winter outdoor activity that has been found to result in a wide array of benefits to mental health and well-being. There is, for example, evidence that exposure to nature positively impacts happiness and subjective well-being; facilitates positive social interactions, cohesion, and engagement; is associated with a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life; improves the perception of manageability of life tasks; and is associated with decreases in mental distress. In addition, longitudinal studies, as well as natural and controlled experiments, have revealed that nature experience has been shown to positively impact various aspects of cognitive function, memory, and attention, impulse inhibition, children’s school performance, as well as imagination and creativity.
There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothes
There is great truth in the Scandinavian saying, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. Once you’ve committed yourself to heading towards the door to venture outside, you will want to ensure that you’re ready for the winter conditions, and choosing the right clothing is key!
Here are a few things to consider when heading outside to exercise in winter:
- Dress in layers!
- The advantage to layering is that when working hard and starting to overheat, you can simply take off an insulating layer (i.e., a fleece or middle layer jacket) Then, when inactive and cooling down, you can replace the insulating layer.
- Avoid cotton clothing -- it will absorb perspiration from the body, stay wet, and pull heat away from the body
- Wear wool or synthetic hat, gloves, and socks -- again, avoid cotton!
- Look to synthetic or wool base layers -- these fabrics wick sweat away from the body and are quick drying
- Use a waterproof but breathable outer layer
- Avoid goose-down if you plan to break a sweat. While goose-down is the warmest for the weight, and a good option for rest stops and while hanging around a campsite or walking between buildings, it dries poorly and won't keep you warm when it's wet the way fleece or other synthetics do.
- Wear high visibility clothing and even consider a headlamp if you’re going out in low light.
- Consider winter traction cleats (such as Stabilcers, Kahtoola or Yaktrax), if running/walking on icy roads or trails.
Weather, like most things in life, is as bad as you make it to be.
If you commit to changing your perspective, your mindset, you will change your experience! That being said, if you find yourself weighing the pros and cons of heading outside to exercise versus staying bundled up under the covers watching Netflix, consider all that can be gained by heading outside!
If enhancing your mood, energy, and mental alertness is of interest to you, or decreasing stress and anxiety, or improving sleep, or engaging in an activity that connects you socially with others, I strongly encourage you to layer up, brave the cold, and head outside to experience all the benefits and joys of being active outside this winter!
Looking forward to seeing you out there!
Photo: Isaac Wendland