The days are short, the weather erratic, and the temperatures make us think twice before leaving the house. In Canada, it’s safe to say that winter is as inevitable as death and taxes. If that’s the case, why do we seem so resigned to merely endure it? Imagine how much better our lives would be if we embraced winter and all it has to offer. It may sound crazy, but there are some significant health benefits for seniors to spending time outside in winter. So, bundle up and dive into that snowbank; it’s time to enjoy the most hated season!
In recent years, there has been an influx of research arguing the benefits of spending time outdoors. Even small amounts of time in nature can have health benefits for seniors. In Japan, a study showed that simply walking in a forest lowered participants’ average heart rate by nearly 4% and blood pressure by a little over 2%. These might not be life-changing differences, but they could be the difference between needing medication for blood pressure and being able to manage it on your own. Multiple studies have also shown that spending time outdoors is associated with decreased anxiety and depression, reduced inflammation, and a longer lifespan. In fact, those who regularly spend time in nature (even urban parks) had a 12% lower mortality rate — most notably when it came to cancer, lung disease, and kidney disease.
Obviously spending time outdoors has significant health benefits for seniors. But is it worth braving the elements in winter? As it turns out, there are specific benefits to getting outside in winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects many Canadians, at least in part because of the shorter, darker days and our tendency to stay hidden away inside. Spending time outside in the sun can help combat the effects of SAD — or maybe even prevent it altogether. Additionally, exposure to sunlight helps our bodies produce vitamin D, which is needed for strong, healthy bones. People at risk of developing osteoporosis, such as post-menopausal women, should try to spend more time out in the sun year-round.
Additionally, exercising in the cold makes your body spend more energy to raise your body temperature. Certainly don’t put yourself at risk of hypothermia, but letting your body naturally warm you a little can boost your metabolism and help burn some of those holiday cookie calories. Walking outside in the winter is more of a workout than it is in the warmer weather. Between the heavier footwear and coats adding a component of weight-training to the activity and the snow and ice forcing your body to stabilize against the slippery surface, walking becomes a full-body workout. If you have balance or mobility issues, keep this in mind and be safe; always bring the appropriate supports so that your walk doesn’t turn into a trip to the hospital.
Given that we could all benefit from spending more time outside this winter, it helps to have some fun winter activities on hand for those days when you’d rather curl up with a blanket and a coffee. Here are some of our best suggestions for a variety of fitness and mobility levels:
- skating on an outdoor rink
- cross-country skiing
- downhill skiing
- tobogganing (kids not required)
- build a snowman
- walk your dog
- visit a dog park and watch the dogs play in the snow
- go on a neighbourhood scavenger hunt (look for a blue garage door, a snowman, holiday decorations, etc.)
- walk to a coffee shop to meet a friend
- go birdwatching
What are your favourite ways to spend time outdoors in the winter? Share your ideas with us in the comments below.