SOLACE IN THE SNOW
Canadian winters can be long and harsh, but hibernating until spring can be harmful to both our physical and mental health. It’s time to embrace the snow and appreciate the season.
Embrace the Canadian winter and stay physically and mentally healthy.
For years, Vancouver nutritional consultant Joanna Bowen avoided winter. With indoor parking both at home and at work, she would go into hibernation mode, spending time outdoors only when absolutely necessary. “I didn’t have to set foot in the snow unless I was shovelling,” she says. “My experience with winter was miserable.” Then one year she decided to revisit a childhood pastime that she thought she’d outgrown: cross-country skiing. Suddenly, the snow she’d been treating as merely a nuisance became the crux of a rekindled hobby—one that provided not only physical exercise, but balm for the mind and soul, too. “Cross-country skiing puts you in an environment that is nourishing,” she says. “It did a lot for my emotional well-being, my love of life, and my autonomy. It built up my confidence in being able to go out in nature on my own, to do something I love, and be independent.”
We all know that frequent exercise—be it daily 20-minute walks or intense barre fitness sessions at a favourite boutique studio— is essential for physical and mental health. But come wintertime, when the sun sets before dinner and spending time outside means pro stylist–level layering techniques, fitness routines often shift indoors. And while any movement is beneficial, Toronto physician Melissa Lem explains that we might be losing something by ditching the fresh air. “There’s a growing body of evidence indicating that being outside turbocharges the positive effects of physical activity,” she says, citing a 2011 review that reported “exercising in nature is better for increasing energy and decreasing stress, anger, and depression.”
Shonna-Lee Miedema of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, is a believer in the power of spending time outdoors. “The primary reason I exercise outside in the winter is [to benefit] mental health,” she says. Living in a region where winters tend to be cloudy, she relies on light therapy to combat seasonal mood changes, but also prioritizes outdoor exercise, especially when she has the chance to spend time in the sun, such as on the ski hill, which is often above the cloud cover that sits in the valley. She considers cardio to be essential, too, and frequents nearby trails for runs or hikes—with extra grips attached to her shoes when necessary—to get her heart rate elevated. “I just feel so good afterwards,” she says. “It allows my mind to clear so I can be more mindful and have more patience. You just feel happier.”
Dr. Raymond Lam, head of clinical neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, explains that winter depression has a spectrum that ranges from the winter blahs to a more severe condition that warrants medical treatment. While the majority of studies focus on subjects with severe symptoms, steps shown to improve symptoms will apply to just about anybody. “We know that exercise is good for mood and depression in general,” says Lam. “And we know that, usually, light exposure is even better. In the winter people don’t get enough of it because they don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.” He notes that even on a dim winter day (especially when there’s snow to reflect light), you’ll still get a lot more light outdoors than in a brightly lit indoor space. It’s worth making the effort to get up and out, even when the sky is grey. Though any light at all is helpful, he says: “it doesn’t have to be sunlight.” As for the type of exercise—gentle versus aerobic— to best boost the winter lows, Lam says the jury is still out. “Some studies show that aerobic is better than nonaerobic, but others show that for general well-being, even a half-hour-long brisk walk three times a week will help,” he says. “Any kind of increased activity is helpful.”
Dr. Lam does caution that lunchtime walks (or laps on the ski hill) are not necessarily a cure, but one important tool in a depression-fighting toolkit. Dr. Robert Levitan, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, agrees, noting that the value (and quality) of winter light exposure often depends on the local climate. The overcast skies of Toronto and Vancouver are less inspiring than, say, the bluebird days common in the Prairies or Western Canada’s mountain regions. Interestingly, he adds, rates of seasonal depression in Ontario tend to be higher the farther south you go—probably because residents of southern Ontario spend less time outdoors, but it’s likely also due to weather patterns. There’s evidence showing that those who “live more of a rural life” have lower rates of seasonal affective disorder. Of course, having a positive attitude toward winter holds some weight in the equation too, he adds. “There’s a lot of evidence that those who live in areas with a strong winter culture are at an advantage,” he says, giving Quebec City’s Carnaval as an example.
For Toronto publicist Bunmi Adeoye, embracing winter was the goal when she took up downhill skiing five years ago. “I wasn’t a person who grew up skiing,” she says, “but I was tired of complaining about the winter and thought I’d give it a try.” After joining a local club and taking lessons to develop her skills, she graduated to bigger hills and has now skied at resorts all over North America, interspersing ski trips with winter running, and laps around the local ice rinks. “It’s about the workout but, with skiing especially, it’s also about being outdoors all day and having the sun on your face,” she says. “[Being active and outdoors] has really changed my perspective on winter. Now I’m of the mindset that we should all just embrace it.”
“It’s worth making the effort to get up and out, even when the sky is grey.”