Are we ready for the winter challenge?

Are you feeling a little nervous about the onset of winter, with greater isolation and possible winter blues?

You’re not alone if you’ve been dreading this winter. As the colder weather sets, and the Covid-19 cases are on the rise, the prospect of a cold winter seems daunting to many of us.

But what if we had a free, Covid-safe way to support our well-being, reduce stress and feel connected?

We do. If we’re able to shift our mindset and our warm comfort zone.

Nature heals, no matter the weather

In the colder months, many of us tend to stay indoors where it’s warm and comfortable. We might even hibernate a bit, going out only to get in our cars or to grab the mail.

I love to be warm and cozy, so going outdoors in the winter sometimes takes some extra motivation.

But if we don’t spend any time in nature, we not only lose the Vitamin D, we also lose a chance to improve our well-being, our mental health and our stress level.

Because nature is healing. It’s not just an idea, it’s a fact backed by research. 

Better health, well-being and reduced stress

Research published by the journal Nature in 2019 found that spending at least 2 hours in nature a week is associated with better health and well-being

In an 8-week study out of the University of Michigan, researchers found that spending 20 minutes sitting or walking in nature significantly reduced stress hormone (cortisol) levels. Participants were able to choose where and when they interacted with nature, but they could not be not distracted by exercise, conversation, internet or phone during the time (walking was ok).

In another study out of Stanford, scientists found that walking in nature reduced rumination and depression, which often accompany stress. In the study, one group of city-dwellers walked for 90 minutes through a grassland with trees and shrubs and views of the water; the other walked along a four-lane city street. Only those that walked in nature showed decreases in rumination and lower levels of neural activity in an area of the brain associated with a higher risk for mental illness. 

Interestingly, and perhaps related to its calming effects, a study from the UK’s University of Plymouth showed that seeing green spaces from your home is associated with a reduction in cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy food.

Greater connection

With prolonged social distancing and sometime-quarantine restrictions, we can easily feel isolated and disconnected from others.

Again, nature can help.

A recent study from researchers at Texas, the University of Georgia and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that we get a sense of connection or calm from walking in a park or forest because doing so meets our psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. Research also links being in places with many trees to feelings of connection and well-being.   

In addition to improving our sense of connection with nature, being outside can shift our mood and improve relationships.

Since outdoors is the safest place to connect with others, we might invite a friend or loved one along, or simply go to a place where we might smile and connect with others. This could mean meeting for a walk, or showing up at a park, beach, skating pond or local sledding hill where others are also enjoying outdoors (at a Covid-safe distance).  

One word: friluftsliv

In Nordic countries, cold weather doesn’t stop people from routinely getting outside in nature. They have a word for their philosophy: friluftsliv, which means open-air living.

Friluftsliv is about spending time in nature regardless of the weather. In Norway, the concept is part of the culture and lifestyle, and could also be one of the reasons Norway ranked #5 in the 2020 UN World Happiness Report. 

In Stockholm, Sweden, people routinely go outdoors to walk and jog during their lunch break, even when it’s below freezing. One Swedish scientist told the BBC, “We have a saying in Sweden ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.” 

3 steps to winter well-being (the friluftsliv challenge)

No matter the temperature, nature can help keep us healthier, feeling better, less stressed and more connected.

When did you last get outside and regret it afterwards?

Last winter my family and I went skiing in single-digit temps (F). I thought we were a little crazy at the time, but we actually had fun, and there were no crowds. (We just had to stop and warm up a little more than usual.) When I take the dog to the beach or woods in the cold and bad weather, I usually dread it beforehand, but I never regret it afterwards.

What if we could just drop the dread and adopt a friluftsliv mindset instead this winter?

This is my challenge, to myself and to you – and this is coming from someone who’s fingers turn blue!

We’re not talking about extreme adventures, just spending some time regularly connecting with nature in whatever way that is feasible and enjoyable for you.

We can start with these 3 steps:

1) Mindset. Choose a friluftsliv mindset about being out in nature in the winter months. The Nordic philosophy will help to heal our feelings of isolation, stress, and our frayed emotions and nervous systems in this time of Covid.

2) Prepare. Prepare yourself and your loved ones by stocking up on cold weather gear to keep you safe and protected in the cold.

3) Commit. Make a commitment to getting out in nature for a certain period of time each week. Being clear about when, where and how frequently you’ll commit, and sharing it with those around you, will help ensure it will happen. Make it do-able. You can always up your commitment later as it becomes easier with time and momentum.

Speaking of that, don’t forget to notice the effects while you are in nature, and afterwards. As you become more aware of the results, and continue to act on your commitment, it will get easier.

As I tell my clients, like creating a new path in the woods, so your brain will create the neural pathways for a friluftsliv habit that will get more well-worn each time you return.

Will you join me in the friluftsliv challenge? Shoot me a note or share below! 

Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash