But since I live somewhere with long winters, it’s best to learn to appreciate the joys of the season. Winter has its own wonders, from the hush that descends during a snowfall to observing patterns of ice and snowflakes. I also love watching my kids’ joy in sledding down a big hill or constructing snow people, animals and forts. And while it’s certainly delightful to curl up with a cozy blanket and a mug of tea when temperatures drop, the cold doesn’t have to keep you from enjoying the benefits of time outside, which are important all year round.
Whatever the weather, there are excellent reasons to get outside this season. From sledding to snowman building to just stomping around, winter has plenty of opportunities for outside fun. And of course, there’s still hot chocolate, apple cider, and cozy blankets to look forward to when you’re done romping in the cold.
1. You Need Fresh Air
Even if you’ve worked to make your home a green haven by skipping toxic cleaners and products, you’ve likely still got things in your home that add to indoor air pollution like electronics, furniture, and kitchen gear. Our homes are more tightly sealed than ever – which is a good thing for energy efficiency, but not so much for indoor air quality.
Outdoor air is generally far less polluted, especially if you seek out natural areas with lots of plant life, like woods and open fields. Being cooped up in winter is also one key reason it’s known as “cold season.” We’re more likely to catch germs sharing enclosed spaces with others, and the drier indoor air helps viruses survive longer, making colds and flu more likely. Getting outside gives your body a break from indoor air, while boosting your immunity in other ways. (See below.) Go take some deep breaths outside and fill your lungs with healthier air!
2. Get a Dose of Vitamin D
Vitamin D has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for its critical role in health, affecting everything from mood and immune system function to cancer risk. When we’re inside more, we don’t get vitamin D from the sun. “D-ficiency” has become widespread in the modern world, where people spend the majority of their waking hours inside. For those of us in northern latitudes, all that bundling up against winter cold makes it harder to get enough vitamin D. Even if we can’t synthesize as much of this crucial vitamin between November and March, every little bit of sunlight helps. And increased exposure to sunlight appears to have other benefits as well (see #6 below).
3. Get Moving
Cold weather can mean less outdoor recreation or walking for transportation. Even if we schedule time for exercise, without the time in the garden or strolls downtown, we’re likely getting less exercise overall, which isn’t great for our health or mental well-being. Not loving feeling stiff and draggy? Bundle up and head out for a walk or hit the cross-country ski trails. Exercise of any sort helps boost your immune system, improves mood, and lowers risk for chronic diseases.
4. Boost Metabolism
If you’re into regular exercise, you’ll add to the challenge of your workout by dealing with winter’s uneven terrain. The cold also makes your body work harder to stay warm, so you raise your metabolic rate—a good thing when we’re indulging in all that cocoa and other rich comfort food. Cold weather exercise also alleviates the heat stress that comes from hot-weather workouts.
5. Reduce Stress
The emerging field of environmental psychology has shown that time spent in nature is highly effective at reducing stress. Take time in winter to connect with the wonders of nature, whether it’s gazing out at a snowy landscape or stopping to see how ice crystals have formed on a tree branch. Add in the stress-busting effects of exercise and taking time out of a busy day to enjoy nature and you have a recipe for relaxation and better health.
6. Improve Your Mood
The darker months of winter are well known for affecting our mood. Exposing yourself to the sun’s rays is one of the best remedies for the winter blahs. Sunlight provokes the release of serotonin, one of those important feel-good chemicals. It also affects the production of melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycles. Poor sleep, as you’re no doubt aware, has a very negative impact on mood. Add in the mood-boosting effects of exercise and vitamin D, and some time outside might be the perfect prescription for winter blues.
7. Sharpen Your Thinking
Almost a decade ago, a study from the University of Michigan showed that interacting with nature improves cognitive function no matter the weather. Participants in the study increased their memory performance and attention spans by more than 20% after just an hour of interacting with nature. A more recent study suggests that the higher levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor air may be a crucial factor affecting our ability to think well. When study participants were asked to complete complex mental tasks in air with varying CO2 concentrations, researchers found that cognitive function declined measurably with higher CO2 concentrations. Clear your mind and your lungs with a walk in the woods!
8. Increase Energy
Time outdoors has also been shown to increase energy levels. Whether it’s the vitamin D, the stress relief, or increased oxygen, having more energy at a time when we’re inclined to hibernate is a great thing! If you’re feeling sluggish, a little time outside might be just the pick-me-up you need.
9. Inspire Your Children
Children who spend more time outdoors are known to have increased problem-solving skills. Time in nature also stimulates the imagination, giving your child a breath of fresh air and opportunities to expand their creative thinking. When parents are outside, children are likely to follow, and setting an example of regular outdoor time means laying the foundation for healthy habits early in life. Getting outside together also means reconnecting without distractions from housework, homework, and technology. If you have children, conversations seem to flow more naturally out of doors when the rich scenery offers a backdrop for playing and thinking differently.
10. Connect With Your Community
Stepping outside often means encountering your neighbors. Meeting on the street, during a walk or a game, gives you the latest opportunity to connect and share new developments. Communicating face-to-face with your neighbors also fosters connection and builds a sense of community, something that’s been shown to increase our overall satisfaction with where we live. No one likes to feel isolated, yet modern living often promotes isolation through high-speed interactions and digital communications. Getting outside and interacting in-person, during real-time, has lasting benefits for individuals and neighborhoods.
It’s easy to forego the pleasures of contact with nature when colder temperatures keep us from leisurely strolls or time in the garden. By consciously working some outside time into your winter routine — whether it’s building a snowman, hiking through the woods, or skiing — you can enjoy the benefits of time outdoors all year round.