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.

S/ - - CONTENTS - BY KAT TANCOCK

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.”

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