Aging with Adventure with Eric Weld: Recapturing winter’s magic: Spending time outdoors in the bracing cold yields many health benefits

  • Friends Vicki Van Zee, left, and Bonnie Tumelty, both of Northampton, take one of their regular walks through the Northampton Meadows and down Ventures Field Road on a bright and blustery morning last Friday, Feb. 18. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Friends Vicki Van Zee, left, and Bonnie Tumelty, both of Northampton, approach the Connecticut River levee at Ventures Field Road in Northampton on one of their regular walks on a bright and blustery morning last Friday, Feb. 18. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vicki Van Zee and Bonnie Tumelty of Northampton take one of their regular walks through the Northampton Meadows and down Ventures Field Road on a bright, blustery morning. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Monday, March 07, 2022

I discovered something important this winter. As I did, it made the difference between surviving this cold, dark season and enjoying it — between hibernating and clenching my way through it, and relaxing into all that it has to offer.

I discovered the importance of spending time outside. In the cold. Sometimes in the dark.

It seems like a simple thing, to say it. And I realize many others have already made this discovery long ago. I’m a little embarrassed, to be honest, that it has taken me nearly six decades to uncover the magic of being outside in winter.

Check that. As a child I enjoyed playing in the snow and cold, sledding, skating, building forts and hurling snowballs. When I was a kid, being outside was what you did, regardless of the season. Hours would go by sliding down a hill without notice of the time, fingers and toes frozen.

Somehow, as we age, many of us lose touch with the magical splendor of playing outdoors in the snow, and we shrink from winter’s frigidity. I had joined those ranks, too, without realizing it. Though I’ve enjoyed skiing and snowshoeing, I’ve come to emphasize the cold and extra clothing burden of winter over its benefits, too often hiding indoors, away from its threatening growl.

This makes for a long winter.

More sunlight

Americans spend, on average, about 90% of our time indoors. And 40% of us have a vitamin D deficiency.

Hibernating from winter’s cold may be a natural human response, says Dr. John R. Sharp, a seasonal affective disorder (SAD) specialist at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. But it’s not a healthy behavior, nor are our bodies meant to spend so much time inside.

“Too little sunlight is stressful and affects our emotional and physical well-being, making us vulnerable to being pessimistic and fatigued,” says Sharp, author of “The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life.”

Spending time outside — even just a little bit — helps lower our stress and build energy, among numerous other benefits essential to healthy aging. Vitamin D, which our bodies manufacture when our skin is exposed to the sun, has been shown to be an important nutrient for building blood cells, helping reduce inflammation, and strengthening our immune systems by boosting infection-fighting T cells.

When we go outside, our bodies also absorb minerals such as calcium and phosphorous, essential for maintaining healthy bones. In the woods, we breathe phytoncides, airborne chemicals emitted by plants that increase white blood cell counts and help ward off disease and infection.

Dr. Jim Freeman, who specializes in internal medicine and lives in Granby, has literally prescribed going outside for some of his patients, especially as they age. “I used to write a prescription on a pad,” he said. “Take a 15-minute walk outside. It has a positive impact, encouraging exercise.”

Freeman, who is 62 and an avid hiker, cyclist and rower, was ahead of his time as a physician prescribing outdoor activity. “Nature prescriptions,” as they’re sometimes called, have become a mini-trend in the medical community. In more than 30 states and some other countries, doctors are prescribing time outside, particularly in parks and forests, as a way to treat high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and other maladies.

In Japan, they have shinrun yoku, or “forest bathing.” One Japanese study showed that forest bathing decreased the stress hormone cortisol and increased anti-cancer proteins.

Less stress

Maybe more important, being outside, especially in winter, carries enormous mental health benefits, offsetting the “winter blues” and effects from SAD.

“I am a happier person when I get outside regularly,” notices Kevin Shea, a professor of chemistry at Smith College who lives in Longmeadow. “I deal with stress much better if I can decompress outside.”

Stress is the enemy, and we Americans have way too much of it. Cortisol, the stress hormone, was once necessary to keep us humans alive as it kicked in to boost our adrenaline so we could escape an attacking animal. But nowadays our lifestyles have led to sustained high levels of cortisol, negatively affecting our memory, attention span, even visual perception. A 2021 study in Neurology correlated increased cortisol levels with precursors to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The simple act of being outside, especially during daylight, can lower cortisol levels, decrease stress and, as a result, lengthen and enhance our lives.

Embracing winter

My embrace of winter has included regular snow hikes, icy and snowy bike rides, snowshoeing and daily walks.

Joining the ranks of winter lovers has changed my life in countless ways. My physical and mental energy levels are much higher than in past winters as I make a point of getting outside nearly daily. I’m more comfortable in the cold and don’t dread single-digit temperatures as I once did.

One key to the shift for me has been an acceptance of piling on layers of clothing in order to stay relatively comfortable whatever the temperature or wind chill is outside. That, and an imperative to keep moving to generate warmth.

With these simple shifts, I’ve been able to enjoy this season’s fresh, cool air and unique beauty in ways that I haven’t since childhood.

“Everything is more beautiful with snow cover, especially when it sticks to the trees and turns everything white,” describes Shea, who spends a lot of weekends at his second home in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. “Also, the air is less hazy in winter, so you can see farther and views are clearer.”

Jim Freeman recalls a recent hike up Mount Toby in frigid temperatures. “It was just exhilarating,” he said. “The crisp air. And there are fewer people out in winter, and no leaves, so your view is less obstructed.”

There’s a magic to winter, to being outside and moving on a cold, still day, especially after a snow. Outside in winter can offer a sense of peace and calm that other seasons don’t typically provide.

“I love finding moments of awe when I am out in the crisp winter air surrounded by a blanket of snow,” Shea says. “I cherish taking new trails to unexpected views that literally take my breath away.”

I’ve tried it both ways: hunkering down through the cold season, wishing for its end, slowing down and packing on a few seasonal pounds; and now, embracing the chilly air, pulling on several layers and going out in it to play on the ice and in the snow.

The latter way is better. Winter here in New England can be a long season, sometimes seeming like it lasts half the year. Dreading it and gritting your way through only makes it feel longer. Getting out in it is the secret to enjoying it and taking its arrival in stride.

If you’re not used to being outside in winter, start small, Shea advises. “Head to local destinations like Arcadia, Mount Tom or Mount Holyoke to get some experience.” He also recommends finding a guide who can mentor you in winter activities.

It only takes a few minutes, as little as 10 or 15, to derive outdoor benefits, so don’t be afraid to ease in — or out, that is, and build up endurance. The main thing is to be out in it.

“Get outside,” Shea urges, “and have fun. You’ll be amazed how much fun you can have outside in winter!”

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com. He writes monthly for the Gazette.