6 Reasons to Get Outside in the Cold
This summer, of all summers, we hoped would last forever. We could explore new trails in the warm sunshine, train for a triathlon or ultramarathon, or put extra miles on our trusty mountain bike. But as the days get shorter and cooler, it’s time to bow to the inevitable: winter is coming. Time to clean the fireplace, pull out the wool sweaters and socks, and stock up on herbal tea. In dark days and cold weather, it’s easy to give into the temptation to wrap yourself in a blanket in front of the TV and not move until the vernal equinox.
Here’s a tip: don’t do it! Because not only are we living in a time when the safest place to be is outdoors, it turns out that getting outside in cold weather can be just as much fun as it is in the summer, and it has all kinds of health benefits too. And you don’t have to join the polar bear club or sign up for cryotherapy, unless you want to.
First off, let’s state the obvious: Committing to staying active year-round is the best way we can think of to enhance immune function, reduce inflammation, and boost your mood (thank you, serotonin!). Sure, you could go to the gym for that. But consider what going outside in the winter can do for you:
Benefit 1: Sunlight
In the summer, we can get plenty of sunlight mowing the grass or walking the dog. In the winter, when the days are short and we’re spending more time inside, it’s important to make sure that we’re getting at least 15 minutes of sun a day, which is the minimum amount of time our bodies need to keep our Vitamin D from depleting. Vitamin D is vital to regulating the immune system and, according to research from the NIH, may even reduce your chances of getting the flu. Not to mention it just feels great!
Benefit 2: Heart Health
When you exercise in cold weather, your heart pumps more oxygenated blood to keep you moving and to ensure that your body maintains a stable temperature. It may make the exercise feel more challenging, but it strengthens your heart muscles in the process. Why not greet the warmer weather come spring in even better shape than you were last year?
Benefit 3: Brain power
Stuck on a tricky work problem? The answer may come to you on a wintry hike. Researchers Amar Cheema of the University of Virginia and Vanessa M. Patrick of the University of Houston conducted a series of experiments measuring cognitive performance at 67 degrees and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. For comparison, 72 degrees represents most peoples’ comfort zones. In one such experiment, the participants were asked to proofread an article in a warm room or a cool room. Participants in warm rooms performed significantly worse than those in cool rooms. Other experiments required more complex tasks, but the results were the same: people performed better in lower temperatures. Other research has shown that people are less inclined to take on complex tasks in the summer because the brain uses glucose to keep you cool, leaving less available for mental processes.
Benefit 4: No allergies or insects
Remember all the sneezing and sniffling you did when you ran in the park under the trees this last spring? Remember the black flies that followed you down the trail and the horror movie-worthy mosquitoes that bit you through your backpack? Neither of those things is going to be a problem for the next few months. Why not get out there and experience the joy of clear nasal passages and hours of sting-free exercise?
Benefit 5: Calorie Burning
Humans have two kinds of body fat: white and brown. We’re born with lots of brown fat because it helps babies manage their body temperatures. We lose most of it by the time we’re adults, but cold temperatures can stimulate the body to activate our brown fat stores. And that brown fat boosts metabolism. Plus, a 2017 study showed that participants burned 34 percent more calories while hiking when the temperature hovered between 14 and 23 degrees Fahrenheit than they did while hiking on 50-degree days. So instead of hibernating like a bear, maybe take an ice-fishing trip or spend the day snowshoeing. Your summer self will thank you!
Benefit 6: Mental Health
Brought up with the concept of friluftsliv, which translates roughly as “open air life,” Norwegians embrace the colder months. And that produces what Meik Wiking, chief executive of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, refers to as “outdoorphins.” So take it from the Norwegians. Once you’re there, being outside in the winter is fun. If you’re used to slogging through the winter on the treadmill, a few hours on skis or skates can put you in touch with the childhood joy of snow days when we threw snowballs and made ice forts just for the fun of it. And no matter what’s in the forecast, just being outside benefits your overall well-being. Check out what just 20 minutes of time outside can do for you: Stressed? Take 20 Minutes of Fresh Air.
So grab your hat and gloves and dust off the sled. Getting outdoors for some wintertime play will do you nothing but good.