Resist the urge to only spend time outside during warm months. If you live where it gets cold, braving the winter chill could aid your health and well-being.

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.

Physical Health

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?


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