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beat the winter blues

5 Ways to Boost Wintertime Energy and Happiness

New research shows that being in nature can improve vitality, increase physical activity, and generate mental clarity.



RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's just a few weeks until the official first day of winter, but if you feel like you've already fallen into a cold-weather funk, the best prescription might be waiting for you on the other side of your front door. An assortment of research suggests that being exposed to nature, or even just visualizing yourself outside in a natural setting, can greatly improve mental and physical energy.

THE DETAILS: Five studies on the effects of being in nature, conducted by an international team of researchers, appeared in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The different studies all came to the same conclusion—that being outdoors and exposed to nature is linked to greater vitality. The study authors described vitality as feeling enthusiastic, alive, vigorous, happy, alert, and full of energy.

In one of the studies, participants didn't even have to actually go outdoors. Just the thought of being outside was associated with greater vitality.

Another study dealing with perception involved participants looking at pictures of buildings or natural settings. Looking at the manmade structures sank vitality levels, while looking at the natural scenes produced a better sense of vitality. Outdoor time could enhance the effects of exercise, as well. One of the studies found that people who opted for outdoor strolls reported increased vitality, while those who walked indoors saw no change. The remaining studies looked at participants' activities during a two-week period and found that being exposed to nature, and even just going outside to experience sunlight and fresh air, boosted vitality.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's tempting to spend as much time indoors as possible during cold winter weather. But if you find that the only time you're experiencing the great outdoors is during that 30-second walk from your front door to your car, you could be depleting yourself of some natural mood-enhancing medicine—moments with Mother Nature. To boost your spirits this winter, make it a priority to schedule some time outside.

The study authors even reference naturalist John Muir to highlight the power of the great outdoors:

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy…" (from his book Our National Parks).

Ahh. Now, let's go out and get some fresh air!

Read on for five easy ways to spend time outdoors and generate winter vitality:
# 1: Take a jog. While just the act of being outside can boost your vitality, using that time to exercise can also do wonders to improve your health and boost your mood. Exercise creates the release of natural mood-enhancing chemicals and reduces your risk of many chronic diseases. But if you run outdoors this winter, be sure to heed these cold-weather running rules from the experts at Runner's World magazine:

Stay dry. You risk hypothermia when your body loses more heat than it can produce, and moisture, including your own sweat, can increase that risk. To keep dry, opt for wicking clothing that pulls moisture from your body (just avoid anything advertised as MicroBan or antimicrobial…they contain harmful chemicals), and wear a waterproof and windproof jacket that you can take off if you become warm but slip back on when you slow down and cool down. If it's below freezing, make sure you wear a hat, gloves, and a mask to protect your skin.

Don't blow it. Avoid blowing on your hands to create warmth; the moisture will actually make you colder.

Figure in the chill factor. If the temperature reads 30 but there's a 10-mph wind, it's going to feel like 20 degrees. Run into the wind at the beginning of an out-and-back run so the tailwind will warm you on your return. Or, carry an extra layer to pile on when you head back.

Be well lit. Winter days are short, so make sure you're visible if you're running in the dark, using reflective gear or lights.

Not up for a run? Slow it down to a walk. You'll still get a vitality boost.

# 2: Befriend birds. Many people reserve bird-watching for the spring and summer months because family favorites like bluebirds and robins are in abundance. But winter is a great time to step outside with a pair of binoculars and scan the bare trees for life. On the East Coast, you're likely to see bright red Northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee, and white-breasted nuthatch species. On the West Coast, you might spot Western Scrub-Jay, California Towhee, or Anna's hummingbird species. Because many trees are bare in the winter, you can also look for last summer's bird nests—many birds are creative in what they use to make them! If you put up a bird feeder, make sure it's either within three feet of your window or 30 feet away, to lower the chance of window collisions. Buy reflective bird decals for the outside of your windows, and place them a hands-width apart to really reduce the chances of collisions. See our Backyard Birding Tips story for more.
# 3. Break out the pruners. Winter can be a real bummer for gardeners who miss getting their hands dirty. But not all outdoor plant projects should be put on hold during the cold. In fact, winter is the best time to prune deciduous trees and shrubs because their sap retreats as they go into a dormant state. For top-notch pruning advice, visit our pruning tips story.
# 4: Start a fight. A friendly snowball fight, that is. A playful 19-minute battle will help you burn 100 calories while enjoying the elements of the great outdoors. (Just make sure you don't pack the snow so tightly that it forms into potentially painful ice balls.) If packing snowballs isn't your thing, opt to build a snowman. You'll burn a cool 100 calories during a 22-minute building session, and improve your mood in the process. And what the heck…make a snow angel while you're at it!
# 5: Watch the sun set. This time of year, it's not too often we take the time to go outside without a scheduled task to complete. But this winter, take some time to go out and just absorb the sounds and sights of nature, whether it's in your backyard or at a local park. Watch the sun set. Listen to the birds. Collect pinecones. Breathe.

Filed Under: HAPPINESS, MENTAL HEALTH

Published on: January 4, 2010



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