Aging With Adventure with Eric Weld: Adventure in the dark

  • Andy Foster and his dog Tika run down a trail in Easthampton two days before Christmas. Foster, 53, is an avid biker, runner, hiker, swimmer and camper, who seeks out those activities in the winter as well as other times of the year. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Waterman on Peloton bike in his Northampton home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Waterman explains how the Peloton bike and apps work making his winter work outs easier to get motivated for.

  • Paul Waterman explains how the Peloton bike and apps work making his winter work outs easier to get motivated for.

  • Paul Waterman explains how the Peloton bike and apps work making his winter work outs easier to get motivated for.

  • Paul Waterman explains how the Peloton bike and apps work making his winter work outs easier to get motivated for.

  • Andy Foster and his dog Tika run down a trail in Easthampton Thursday morning, Dec. 23, 2021.

  • Andy Foster and his dog Tika run down a trail in Easthampton Thursday morning, Dec. 23, 2021.

  • Andy Foster and his dog Tika run down a trail in Easthampton Thursday morning, Dec. 23, 2021.

Monday, January 10, 2022

For us adventure-minded people here in the Northeast, this time of year can be killer. It’s cold, for one thing, although that doesn’t necessarily preclude adventure. It just makes it harder and requires more planning and gear.

More important, it’s dark. A lot. We just passed the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice on Dec. 21, a day that gave us a total of 9 hours and 4 minutes of clouded daylight sandwiched between 15-hour stretches of darkness.

These dark days, no amount of planning or gear can fully offset the dampening mental effects, the natural energy and emotional drag that so much darkness can levy.

For many, these annual dark days of December and its contiguous months mean a yearly battle with depression, lethargy and a slide into unhealthy behavior. About 6% of us battle every year with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to winter dark and cold.

For many, this period can become a cascade of natural forces and unwise decisions that conspire to stop our adventure mindset in its tracks and tempt us instead to cuddle up with a blanket, hot cocoa and a movie.

“Most animals show fairly dramatic changes in behavior, physiology, and even appearance, to better survive the challenges of winter,” explains Mary Harrington, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Smith College, whose research focuses partly on biological and circadian rhythms, and on fatigue.

“Some animals enter what we call torpor, slowing down the body functions that keep it alive, lowering their body temperature, and being inactive,” Harrington says.

Sound familiar?

To make matters worse, as we age our metabolism naturally slows down, a little bit each decade from age 20 on, so that our bodies burn fewer calories to maintain normal functioning.

Then add in the vitamin D deficiency most of us are subject to when we get limited exposure to sunlight during the holiday season. At the same time, our bodies are being signaled to produce the hormone melatonin when it’s dark.

“Melatonin is a signal to sleep,” says Harrington, “and because it is only released in the darkness, it is also a signal for the length of the night, and thus, for the season.”

With the cold, we also tend to cut down on our water intake without thinking about it because we just don’t crave as much fluid. As a result, we become dehydrated, which robs us of energy and the desire to move.

No wonder this time of year tends to kill our desire to seek outdoor adventure, or anything, for that matter, that takes effort and energy.

Winter adventure

Some people love the winter — if not the dark — for its snow-related sports and its fresh, cool, cleaner air.

For my part, I go through an annual exercise of trying to embrace the cold, dark season, and I’ve made inroads. I enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking and snowshoeing. But no matter how open I remain to maintaining an adventure schedule through winter, I can’t match the sheer enjoyment of being outdoors in spring, summer and fall.

“I love summer” is my daily mantra during the warm season. Winter, for me, becomes too much a season of survival, in which I get by and do what I have to do to make it through to more temperate days. I don’t always succeed.

Paul Waterman of Northampton can relate. “I actually have to force myself to work out in the winter,” he says. “The sooner it gets darker, the easier it is to say, ‘We’ll just let it go another day.’”

Waterman, 66, has lived his share of adventure. A lifelong runner, he competed in triathlons a decade ago and is considering working up to racing again. He’s traveled and lived all around the world. But winter makes everything harder, he says.

“When it’s dark, it’s easier to just have supper and go to bed.”

More light

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We could all take inspiration from Andy Foster of Easthampton, a fourth grade teacher in the Northampton public schools, who is up for outdoor adventure no matter what time of year it happens to be.

The dark of December? For Foster, that just means one small adjustment: good lighting. “You’ve got to buy a good headlight with lots of lumens,” he explains, “nice and bright to light your path. Then you go.”

Foster, 53, an avid biker, runner, hiker, swimmer and camper, admits he curtails his biking adventures when temperatures dip into the 20s. The wind created by moving through the icy air can be brutal. Instead, he prefers running for the quicker warm-up and relative lack of wind. And he’s always slept outside in all seasons, since his early Boy Scout days. “Every month we’d go camping, all throughout the year,” he recalls.

OK, so everybody doesn’t have Foster’s persistent energy.

Still, there are things we can do to offset the dark’s neurobiological effects on us. A quick slip outside, even for 20 minutes in midday sunshine (this works on cloudy days, too) can supply an important boost of vitamin D and needed energy. If that’s not possible, there’s light therapy. This involves a device that emits a bright light simulating outdoor illumination and it’s been shown to help with seasonal sleep disorders, depression and other SAD symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic researchers.

“Light has a generally arousing effect on our minds,” Harrington says. “Biologists can describe the neural circuits that light activates as well as the wavelengths (color) or lights that are most arousing to people.”

For Waterman, maintaining winter activity is a matter of discipline. “I start to feel guilty if I don’t work out,” he says. “I know I should be doing something. I don’t want to get out of aerobic condition.”

Winter adventure opportunities

All the challenge and struggle aside, the darkness of winter is accompanied by opportunities for adventure that the lighter, warmer times of year are not.

Of course, there’s skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and hiking in the snow, for example. I can attest there are few experiences that surpass snowshoeing along a crisp, woodsy trail after a fresh snowfall, especially if you happen to catch some white-tailed deer like those leaping through the woods of Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.

And winter walks in the early evening dark are a delightful way to view the colorful holiday light displays on houses and in yards around the neighborhood and beyond.

But outdoor activities notwithstanding, this is also the perfect time of year to plan future adventures. Take the time now to map out all the details of your spring and summer outings. Make reservations, plot routes, schedule some fun warm-weather activities. You’ll be glad then that you took the time now, and it will help lower the stress of departure when the time arrives.

Be creative. If you like to camp, set up a tent in your living room and spend a few nights indoor camping. Roast marshmallows in the fireplace or around a backyard (safe!) fire.

The dark cold of winter doesn’t mean the end of adventure. It just means different kinds of adventure. It means adjusting to the parameters, fitting opportunities around what is available and planning around what we are able to do.

Just like aging.

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com.