Don’t hibernate: Why getting outdoors in winter is so good for you
Bears do it, bats do it, even bees do it – heralding the changing of the seasons and the arrival of the first frost by hunkering down and hibernating until spring comes again. It can be tempting for humans too. When the nights draw in and there’s a bitter chill in the air that bites at you through your coat. When you wake up in the dark and go home in the dark. When there’s a new season of Bake Off to watch from the comfort of your sofa, ideally in a nest made of duvets and fuelled by pasta and wine, vowing to wait for the first green leaves to unfold before you emerge back into the great outdoors.
But stop! Whilst I am a huge fan of the lovely little comforts that make winter more bearable (hello, mulled wine) there’s another big comfort you might be missing – time spent outdoors. We need at least 30 minutes of sunlight a day in winter to keep our vitamin D levels high enough to combat tiredness and depression (other signs of a lack of the good stuff include struggling to sleep and catching every cold going around). And yet many of us don’t manage that much daylight. No wonder seasonal affective disorder is on the rise and we’re all buying sun lamps online.
Keeping an active connection to the wider, wilder world around you in the winter months is key. You can, of course, escape properly and go chasing the sun. Packing your bags and jetting off for tropical climes, or just the milder, sunnier winters of the Mediterranean, will give you a big boost of energy, break up the sometimes interminable months of winter and give you some head space. Or you could embrace winter’s cold beauty, instead. Swap the bitter rain of home for a winter wonderland on a ski holiday or a long weekend in the mountains and relish in a world turned white and still, in myriad unique snowflakes, in the beauty of icicles, in the crunch of snow underfoot. It makes this season seem like magic, not an endurance test.
But there’s plenty you can do at home to stay cheerful, too. When I’ve been feeling cooped up I like planning a long country walk followed by a Sunday roast– it puts a zing in your legs and lets you breathe in fresh air and chlorophyll. And no fair-weather excuses – as Alfred Wainwright once said, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing. Or book a weekend escape to really immerse yourself in the countryside. If cold-weather camping isn’t your bag, a glamping trip is a wonderful alternative – pick a yurt with a hot shower and a wood stove and you’ll be snug as a bug even on ice-cold nights. Try my five favourite cosy winter escapes in the UK for ideas.
There’s plenty you can fit into the working week that’ll keep your chipper. Make your lunch break all about a little mindful time outdoors – a brisk 30 minute walk is a great pick-me-up, and a much-needed break from screen time. Even in the heart of the city you can find interesting routes to explore – try walking fast enough to get some colour in your cheeks, and notice how the season is changing around you. If you can get out to a local park or a corner of the countryside, be mindful of the quieter, starker beauty of winter – bare branches, frosted leaves, a sleeping landscape. And don’t forget to keep your fitness levels up. Even if torrential rain forces you indoors, swimming and yoga will boost your serotonin levels to keep you fighting fit (and fighting those winter colds off) till spring. Even better, brave the elements – I promise the soggiest run or surf will make you happy. You’ve just got to fight the hibernating urge, lace up your trainers and go. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat shivering in a car in a wetsuit, watching freezing winter waves crash on the shore and seriously questioning my sanity, only to emerge happier, calmer and refreshed (and usually covered in snot) from a freezing surf session. Keep your chin up and get outdoors this winter – spring will be here before you know it.