Jason Fitzpatrick 11/05/10
Everyone is familiar with the benefits of winterizing things—car tires, window panes, sprinkler systems—but we often overlook ourselves. This winter, consider winterizing your body to stay fit and healthy, both mentally and physically.
Every year winter comes and every year people act as if the cold, the bouts of sickness, and the winter blahs are somehow new and unexpected. This year we want to help you prepare for winter and keep the winter blues and sniffles at bay. Whether you’re sitting in the Great White North or the Sun Belt, here’s how to winterize your body.
Note: While these tips are helpful for anyone, if you experience extreme mood swings, depression, or lethargy during the winter season that extends beyond the general “Man, I wish it were warm out!” sentiment, please see your healthcare provider. Seasonal Affective Disorder is serious business and affects many people in the same way as a major depressive episode—serious health risks included.
The Physical Self: Vitamins, Lighting, and the Great Outdoors
Winter is a different beast than summer. The days are shorter, the fresh food less abundant, and the opportunities for outdoor activities decreased. A significant part of winterizing your body is accounting for the things winter takes away and compensating for them accordingly. Photo by M. Pincus.
Don’t underestimate the power of sunshine. Our circadian rhythm is largely governed by light exposure, and the shift in available sunlight in the United States is dramatic. In June there are 15 hours of sunlight, but in December there are only 9. Further complicating things, those hours of December daylight are nearly all burned up during the working day, leaving evenings cold and dark.
Knowing that your access to natural light will be restricted, there are a few things you can do to compensate. Dawn simulators are a great way to help your body deal with the shifting of sunrise over the year and have been shown to be more convenient and effective than other kinds of light therapy in treating seasonal affective disorder. I personally use the inexpensive ($40) Lighten Up! #308 Dawn Simulator. You plug a bright lamp into it, plug the simulator into the wall, program the “sunrise” time, and it will gradually brighten the room. One of the most effective ways to use the device is to set it to simulate the earliest sunrise time in your locale—check the sunrise tables at the US Naval Observatory to help find the best time. In my case, setting my dawn simulator to being slowly brightening the room at 5:15AM mimics the longest days of summer. (A nice side effect of using the dawn simulator: I haven’t used an alarm clock in ages.)
Take your vitamins. Nordic countries, despite experiencing the same cold and darkness as other extremely northern locales, have a significantly lower rate of seasonal affective disorder. Researchers believe the key is the volume of fish they eat (nearly 5 times more than US or Canadian citizens). The enormous reserve of vitamin D and vitamin A found in the fatty tissue of fish protects the Norse from the deficiency experienced by the non-fish eaters in other colder climates. Nothing against fish, but if you want to skip the fish-eating part, consider stopping by your local health food store to pick up fish oil caplets, which could do the trick just as well. Additionally, taking a multivitamin can’t hurt given the decrease in fresh fruits and vegetables consumption most people experience in the winter months.
Stay hydrated. Hydration is another key element to winterizing your body. People tend to drink a lot of water and fluids in the summer. Winter can be just as dehydrating, however, as the lower humidity dries your skin and the mucus membranes of your nose, throat, and lungs—winter time breathing in many locales is the same as breathing the bone-dry air you experience in an airplane cabin. Be mindful of how much water you drink. In addition, putting a humidifier in your bedroom (or activating your whole-house humidifier if you have one) will keep your mucus membranes moisturized and decrease the chances of you getting an airborne illnesses.
Get outside and stay active. It’s easy to get out of the house in the summer—nearly everything fun is happening outside. Between walks in the park, trips to the beach, and downtown festivals, all the fun events of spring and summer are almost always outside. Readers in sunny southern states might not fully relate to this, but Northerners will understand: Come wintertime, the world seems to close shop and go to sleep for a few months. Fight the urge to hole up for the winter and seek out equivalent activities for your favorite summer ones. If you hiked a local nature preserve all summer, cross country ski it. If you went rock climbing at the local cliffs, join a rock climbing gym. Try to find some activity that will take you outside and get you active, preferably during a time where you can get some sun on your face. Don’t forget how powerful sunshine is and what role it plays in regulating your body’s internal clock.
The Mental Self: Well Being, Social Calls, and Long Decembers
Caring for your physical self will go a long way towards making winter more bearable. Good sleep, vitamin supplements, light exposure, and fresh air are excellent mood boosters. Getting some sun on your face and fresh air alone won’t fully take care of the mental and social elements of the winter blues, however. Let’s take a look at what you can do to bolster your mental well-being.
Be mindful of your mood and mental health. Winter can increase the incidence of depression and other disorders in many people. Pay close attention to your state of mind in the darker and colder months. If you start getting into a funk, don’t brush it off as a simple case of the winter blues. As noted above, seasonal affective disorders are serious business, and whether you have a history of them or not you should be extra mindful of your mood.
Stay social. For those of us who live in areas where it can feel like you never see your neighbors between November and March and the snow drifts high enough to form a privacy fence, focusing on social interactions is important. During the summer in my neighborhood, for example, people are out in their front yards and it’s not uncommon to have daily conversations with people up and down the street. Winter is a different story. It hits this area so hard that when the spring thaw comes people emerge with babies you didn’t even know had been born.
Preserving (preferably in-real-life) social networks and avoiding “cabin fever” during the winter is an art form. If you have social groups (neighbors, golf buddies, softball team you coach) that you see during the warmer months but not during the colder ones, make an effort to plan things with them during the winter. Sure, winter has its share of holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years to bring people together, but a few big bashes over a span of months isn’t the same as routinely seeing and connecting with people on a daily and weekly basis. Even something as simple as a rotating bring-your-own-beer and potluck dinner among a circle of friends offers a great opportunity to get together and complain about the snow.
Evaluate your winter pitfalls to guard against them. Get out a legal pad or fire up your favorite text editor. Brainstorming about winter and what makes it a great, not so great, or wretched season for you will go a long way towards helping you extend the advice in this guide to winterizing your body and tailoring it for a custom fit.
- What is your favorite thing about the winter season?
- What is your least favorite thing about the winter season?
- How does the decrease in daylight hours make you feel?
- How do the holidays make you feel? If sad or stressed, why?
- Do you feel shut in or socially isolated?
- Do you feel lethargic or like you don’t get enough exercise in the winter months?
The answers to the questions will help point you in the direction of helpful solutions. For example, if you dislike the holidays because of the stress and financial burden of buying gifts, you could then opt to discuss gift-giving tradition and exchanges with your family or use our holiday gift-tracking template to keep a better handle on how much you’re spending and what you’re giving to whom. Alternatively, if the thing you hate about winter is how hard it is to peel yourself out of bed in the dark mornings, you might consider looking into the dawn simulator suggested earlier in the article. Self reflection goes a long way towards helping you effectively winterize your body and stay healthy and happy until spring comes.
While each person handles winter differently, following a few of the guidelines above and probing into the way you relate to and react to the darker days of winter will help you form a plan of attack and make this the best winter you’ve weathered yet. If you’re a person hit especially hard by the winter and have found a great technique for dealing with the winter blues, we want to hear all about it in the comments. Share your tips and tricks to help your fellow readers build their own plan of attack on winter.