Why go outside in the cold?

Recently I started working a job where I get to be outside most of the day. One thing I noticed is that working outside makes me much happier. Perhaps the high amount of sunlight is preventing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which I believe impacted me in my last office job. I have heard that SAD can be treated with “light therapy”, where you sit near a special light that simulates sunlight.

I can’t prove it, but spending most of the day with natural sunlight is better than using any artificial light. However not everyone has ample access to natural sunlight, hence the indoor solution. Either way, I believe being outdoors is the preferred method of improving your mood during some of the shortest days of the year.

But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today!

Does anyone go outside anymore?

The second thing I noticed working outdoors in the Winter, after the importance of sunlight, is that I don’t see many people outside.

I know what you are thinking: “people are working during the day, kids are at school during the week, and it’s cold! Of course nobody is outside.”

I am working outside six days a week, so I see the weekend activity too. Most people seem to only go outside when they are prompted; either to go to/from work/school, or to get the mail. Sometimes people will combine the two and get the mail on the way down the driveway in their car. While I’m working, I primarily see people in cars and every so often there is someone jogging or walking their dog.

Maybe if you live in Minnesota, or Buffalo, or somewhere very cold, you are thinking “Easy for you to say”. It can be 40 degrees below zero, it’s not worth going outside. You got me there. I am not a big fan of cold weather either. However, while working outside I have learned that it’s not as cold as you think. So far this month, I have worked in temperatures below 20. As long as I have dressed for it, sub-freezing temperatures aren’t that bad. Protect your entire body if you have to; including your head, face, and eyeballs. Wear a windproof and waterproof outer-layer to negate the effects of the weather.

It’s not as cold if you keep moving

Today I found a picture (actually Google found it for me) from exactly 5 years ago. Some friends and I hiked about 6 miles on the Appalachian Trail to the “original” Washington Monument.

I remember the temperature being right around freezing, so not super cold at all. When we stopped at the monument, the wind was hitting us hard (you can see it in our facial expressions in the picture). We were well prepared to hike in the cold though, but maybe not to stand in the wind for long. We had on several layers, hand warmers, water, and hot drinks. If you are prepared, cold weather doesn’t have to hold you back from enjoying the outdoors.

Hiking in the cold – Washington Monument State Park

Indoors are comfortable, why go outside?

Maybe that is the problem: it’s too easy now.

I recently had a discussion with a friend where we determined that many people could probably live inside of their house and never leave.

I see plenty of packages delivered to people’s doorsteps, and most folks crack the door and pull their new merchandise inside, barely exposing themselves to the outdoors. Many grocery stores offer delivery services, so your food is taken care of. If you have an office job, you could work from home. I have met people who work remotely 5 days a week.

The internet is great, but it’s made purchasing “stuff” very easy and potentially eliminated the need to ever leave the house. This is bad for two reasons: less access to sunlight and an even more sedentary lifestyle. Of course you could have exercise equipment delivered to your house too!

Make time for outside

There is limited daylight in the Winter, when you need the sunlight the most. In my previous job, I was in an office with little natural sunlight. My boss would encourage everyone to go outside to get some sunlight during the day. If you work in an office, hopefully you have like-minded individuals that support your mental well-being too. Unfortunately, taking a break from work may be your only chance to see the sun, and it can be difficult to remember to take break while you are busy working. I remember the short Winter days that started and ended in darkness, and the only time that the sun was out, I was in an office. A break of five or ten minutes won’t slow you down that much.

Take advantage of the weekends too. When I am passing through neighborhoods on Saturdays, occasionally I will see a few kids playing sports, usually basketball. The basketball season runs through the winter, and if played outdoors it provides good exercise and real sunlight. If you really don’t like the cold, hit the gym…it’s heated!

To sum it up, there are three great benefits to being outside in cold weather:

  • Mental health: Sunlight makes us happy. At least lack of sunlight is not good for us
  • Physical health: A lot of people put on weight during the Winter. The short and cold days don’t motivate most people to go exercise, even if you go to the indoor gym. Just walking outside will help keep your blood moving and the cold air can be good for the lungs
  • Resilience: I don’t have any proof of this either, but exposure to cold weather can make you a more durable person. This is pretty obvious looking at people from higher latitudes. Sure, this is probably due to genetics, but I would argue that “pushing through” cold weather is a minor accomplishment and gives you a feeling of resilience from the elements.

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