Nurture Your Health By Braving the Cold

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If the dark of winter drives you into hibernation, you’re not alone. Winter’s chill turns on our natural instinct to hole up until gentler weather arrives. Sometimes huddling under a blanket on a dark evening and binging a favorite TV show feels like a major accomplishment. But stepping outside this time of year has important health benefits, maybe even more so than other seasons.

1The Chilling Impact of Winter

There is a good explanation for why winter slows us down. Decreased sun exposure in winter can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, while disrupting the daily balance of melatonin, a hormone that impacts sleep patterns. According to the Mayo Clinic, as many as 15 percent of people get the winter blues, a mild version of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Symptoms include sleepiness, lack of motivation and interest in activities, food cravings, and weight gain.

Fortunately, there is a powerful tool to combat winter lethargy: Step outside and brave the cold. Whether you take a short walk, go for a run or join a group workout, getting outdoors in winter has many benefits.

2The Uplifting Power of Nature

The days are darker and shorter in winter, so it’s worth making an effort to get some rays this time of year. Sunlight causes your body to produce serotonin for lifting the mood and vitamin D for strengthening bones. Sun exposure also reduces melatonin levels, helping to shake off sleepiness.

And there are lots of positives to connecting with nature in general. According to the American Psychological Association, spending time outdoors calms the mind, improves cognition and increases happiness. You can reap benefits whether you’re hiking in a wildlife preserve, walking in a park, or even watching a nature show.

ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach Joan Widdifield was surprised at how uplifting her exercise classes became when she first moved them outdoors because of COVID-19. Widdifield, the wellness coordinator for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA and a former psychotherapist who has studied the nature of happiness, knew that exercise makes people feel good, but being outdoors surrounded by trees added an extra component.

“We’d do the ab work on the mat, and we’d look up at the sky,” Widdifield said. “I always notice how gorgeous it is, and it's different every single day.”

Conquering the cold feels exhilarating, she said. Many in her classes have asked if they can continue to exercise outdoors, “because it’s so invigorating and really lifts your mood.”

3The Calorie-Burning Power of the Cold

It’s easy to drop daily walks and outdoor routines in wintertime, but moving year-round is very important. In addition, chilly temperatures provide unique benefits. Cold air doesn’t just feel rejuvenating; it can also burn more calories. 

Shivering burns extra calories, but research has also shown that exposure to cold temperatures can transform the white fat around your midsection into brown fat, according to Harvard Health. Brown fat produces heat to maintain body temperature in the cold, burning calories in the process. 

Though you have the potential to expend more calories now than at other times of year, make sure to stay safe. If you can’t stop shivering or your clothes are soaked through, it’s time to head indoors.

4The Immune-Boosting Power of Outdoor Exercise

Winter is the season of colds, flu, and, nowadays, COVID-19. Spending time indoors in close quarters with others spreads those viruses around. But remember that vitamin D we mentioned earlier? The good news is that vitamin D can help boost immunity, control infections, and reduce inflammation.

Research also has found that exercise in general helps your immune system, possibly by increasing circulation of white blood cells, flushing out the airways, or reducing stress hormones, according to MedlinePlus. Whatever the reasons, anything that helps fend off the crud is worth it.

And when you meet up with friends for an outdoor walk or exercise routine, you get all the benefits of exercise and socializing while reducing your risk of passing around germs. On top of that, research has shown that exercising with a group also has the power to lift your spirits, Widdifield said.

So while the couch beckons in winter, make sure to step outdoors as frequently as you can. It's worth braving the cold to stay fit, shake off sleepiness, and invigorate both body and mind.

Tags: exercise, healthy, nature, Outdoor Adventures, Self Care

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Written By

Brandee Gruener

Brandee Gruener is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Durham, N.C. See Full Bio

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