We are spending over 90% of our time indoors, in the winters particularly, to the detriment of our physical and mental health. So, snow or not, take a stroll out.
This winter does not threaten to be too harsh. Even if it were, stirring out of the house and spending some time outdoors is critical in these post-Covid years when physical and mental issues are assuming pandemic proportions.
We need to take a leaf out of the book of Norwegians who have freezing winters and months of polar nights. Yet, they hike, they snowshoe, and manage to keep SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) away.
Science knows why. Spending time outside in the cold, doing any activity, increases our basal metabolic rate, which helps the body burn more calories. A simple stroll outdoors regularly can foster longevity –Vitamin D is essential for bone health, melatonin exposure leads to better sleep. Cool temperatures even aid in cognitive performance, getting off the couch has a direct impact on creativity.
Here we are not talking of strenuous exercise. Commit to whatever works for you: sitting on your terrace or the porch wrapped in woolens, biking around the block, birdwatching in the neighborhood park. Research published in Scientific Reports in 2019 concluded that the benefits of spending time outside begin at 120 minutes a week, and “max out” at 300 minutes a week. That’s a range of 17 to 43 minutes per day. The study stresses the importance of regular interaction with nature – green, brown or white.
Lindsey Payne, a Licensed Professional Counselor with The Willow Center in Ohio, agrees that braving the elements for 15 to 30 minutes a day will do you a world of good.
“Imagine your body as like a rechargeable battery. Whether the sun’s out or not, it’s charging your battery when you go out.” The idea is that you’re getting enough natural light for your eyes. Sitting inside with the curtains open doesn’t count.
Cold, crisp fresh air also ameliorates anxiety and depression that creep in during the winter months. Similar to how a splash of cold water to the face can help you wake up.
We also need an attitudinal adjustment. On American channels, medium to heavy rainfall is called a ‘storm’, and chilly or snow days are ‘bad weather’. Unfortunately, we all have accepted and adopted these expressions.
In Norway, even the ‘bad weather’ cities report fewer cases of SAD per capita than much sunnier places. Piqued, Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist from Stanford University, asked locals about the darkest days of the year, with particular emphasis on how the winter affected their mindset. Those who strongly agreed with positive statements about the winter (“There are many things to enjoy about the winter,” “Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes,” etc.) were also most likely to report experiencing successful winters. They also scored highest on figures for mental health and life satisfaction, writes Tanner Garrity, in Inside Hook.
Winter or summer, spending time in nature is emerging as a new therapy for lethargic bodies and muddled urban minds.
Rx: The 20-5-3 rule all year round
Winter or summer, spending time in nature is emerging as a new therapy for lethargic bodies and muddled urban minds. Rachel Hopman, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston, has developed the nature pyramid model. It is like the food pyramid, except that instead of recommending you eat this many servings of vegetables and this many of meat, it recommends the amount of time you should spend in nature to reduce stress and be healthier.
Rachel’s 20-5-3 rule is being widely applied in wellness literature. The basics: We can improve our mental health by spending 20 minutes outside each day, five hours in a natural setting each month, and three days in a wilder, off-grid setting each year.
Michael Easter met Rachel Hopman to elaborate on the 20-5-3 for Men’s Health magazine. He learnt that Hopman led a study that concluded that something as painless as a 20-minute stroll through a city botanical garden can boost cognition and memory as well as improve feelings of well-being.
In nature, Michael writes, our brains enter a mode called “soft fascination.” Hopman described it as a mindfulness-like state that restores and builds the resources you need to think, create, process information, and execute tasks. It’s mindfulness without meditation.
Another research found that a similar dose of nature heavily reduced an urban dweller’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Five hours is the minimum each month you should spend in semi-wild nature, like a forested state park. “Spending more time in wilder spaces does seem to give you more benefits,” Hopman told Michael.
A 2005 survey conducted in Finland found that city dwellers felt better with at least five hours of nature a month, with benefits increasing at higher exposures. They were also more likely to be happier and less stressed in their everyday lives.
Nature has these effects on the mind and body because it stimulates and soothes us in unusual and unique ways. For instance, in nature you are engulfed in fractals, suggested Hopman. Fractals are complex patterns that repeat over and over in different sizes and scales and make up the design of the universe.
On top of the nature pyramid, three is the number of days you should spend each year off the grid in nature, camping or renting a cabin. Away from the hustle and bustle and cellphone transmission towers.
“This dose of the wildest nature causes your brain to ride alpha waves, the same waves that increase during meditation or when you lapse into a flow state. They can reset your thinking, boost creativity, tame burnout, and just make you feel better,” Michael concludes.
Photos courtesy: Unsplash