The days are shorter and colder, making a hot cup of coffee and a fuzzy blanket sound less like a nice idea and more like a necessity. Born in the frozen lands of North Dakota, I became acquainted early with never-ending winter. We wore heavy coats over (or under) our Halloween costumes. We played soccer as the last of the snowflakes fell in April or May. In college, we trudged across campus for classes that were never, ever canceled.
So, I get it. Unless you live in the South or in the farthest southwest corner of the U.S., winter feels harsh and long. But it’s imperative that we get out there—even in winter.
Our bodies crave contact with nature. Most recently, Stanford researchers compared the effects of taking a walk in a natural or urban setting. Their results supported piles of previous research that showed time in nature improves your mood and reduces stress and rumination—that’s what you’re doing when you dwell on negative thoughts, and it’s known to contribute to mental illness.
The Stanford study states, “Such benefits from nature exposure have now been found across a wide range of different types of contact (e.g., photographs, everyday window views, physical presence in natural environments) as assessed using a variety of different research approaches. . . . Benefits from nature exposure have also been observed across varying durations of exposure, from a few minutes of viewing images, to hour-long or multi-day wilderness experiences, up to lifelong proximity to green space. The diversity of findings suggests that the impact of nature experience on psychological functioning may be both widespread and robust.”
The kinds of tasks and stimuli found inside and in urban settings stress and deplete our cognitive resources. Researchers call it direct attention, which refers to our ability to control our focus and streams of thought. And we have a limited supply.
Think of a child sitting in a classroom for hours on end—or the rapt attention you give your computer day after day. We get tired and need a break. Going for a long walk among some trees switches off our direct attention and switches on something else: fascination. Our minds wander, and we restore cognitive functions such as problem solving, selective attention, and multitasking.
It’s easy to heed the advice of this research when “Spend more time outside!” means music festivals, the beach, or fall hikes. But we are no less in need in winter when people often experience seasonal depression. And no wonder! For many, it’s the season of spending as little time outside as possible. But you can make peace with winter. Here’s how I did it.
01. Dress the Part
Obviously, the biggest obstacle to spending time outside between November and February is the cold. But don’t think that just because the weather isn’t sunny and 75 degrees that you can’t still benefit from some nature time.
Researchers at the University of Michigan made an important note on their study of this topic. They said that the effects of nature are the same regardless of whether you enjoy the time in nature. Experimenters saw the same impact in people who went for walks on warm, sunny days and on dreary, cold ones.
You just have to come prepared with layers. In the winter, I basically live in long underwear. If you do it right, you can mask the bulk and trap the heat.
If you’re planning an outdoor date or taking a break during lunch, wear leggings or tights, wool or synthetic, under your jeans or slacks. If you’re wearing a dress or skirt, invest in thick wool tights. I pair my wool leggings with a tight-fitting tank top. You want the layer closest to your skin to wick any moisture and dry quickly to avoid that chilled-to-the-bone feeling. Most materials work well, but avoid cotton if you can. (Pro tip: Don’t double up on socks. If your socks are too thick, you’re likely to cut off circulation, making your feet even colder.)
Sweaters, long sleeves, and fleece are cozy middle layers to trap the heat. Top it off with a good coat, gloves, a scarf, and a hat. If you’re outside and moving, you’ll work up a sweat, and these layers will keep you cozy. An outer layer that blocks wind and rain or snow will help, especially when you’re standing still.
02. Adapt Your Routine
Do you love a good morning run during the summer? Do you take a fall camping trip to a nearby state park? Do you try to enjoy your lunch on a park bench in the spring? This may sound crazy, but you can do any of those activities in winter, too.
Some outdoor stores, such as REI, organize winter camping workshops to teach tips and tricks for enjoying the outdoors when the parks are less crowded. And, despite what you may think, running year-round isn’t just for the hardcore athlete. With the right layers and footwear, you can keep up your outdoor routine well into the winter months.
Keep in mind that when you’re doing something this strenuous, you don’t want to overdo the cold-weather gear. Dress for your run as if you’re planning to stand around on a day when it’s 20 degrees warmer. Take it slow, and watch for ice.
As for the errands you usually do on foot or the lunch break you take the other half of the year, keep it up! It’s a shame to be trapped inside during the daylight hours. The sun is like magic to our bodies, so make the effort to get outside when it’s shining, even if only for a few minutes.
03. Find the Romance
My husband says that winter is the most romantic season of all. Between the lights, the smells, and the crisp air that makes you want to stand close to someone, I have to agree. Finding creative outdoor date ideas is easy when the holiday festivities bring twinkling lights, parades, and displays to gawk at. But some of the best activities work just as well in February: Go ice skating, sit on the porch together wrapped in a fleece blanket, build a snowman, or take your coffee and walk the same path you do in summer. Visit the city, state, and national parks where you go to watch the flowers bloom or the leaves change, and find a way to appreciate this season’s landscape, too.
If you live in a climate that’s cold but doesn’t get a lot of snow, pack a picnic and drink hot chocolate mixed with Bailey’s instead of chilled wine. If you set your mind to it, winter offers a great chance to refresh your date night.
I’ve been lucky to find people who had better attitudes than me when it came to embracing colder seasons. I’m inspired by those who have found winter activities to look forward to or who learned to look on the bright side—just remember that a long winter makes spring and summer that much sweeter.
Each season has its merits. Winter may be a difficult one to love, but year-round enjoyment of the outdoors is good for your body and your mind. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the cold, but once you get out and get moving, there’s no telling what newfound passion you’ll discover.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller