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Science Explains The Benefits Of Braving The Outdoors In Cold Weather

Though many of us prefer to Netflix and chill when the weather gets cold, experts say that spending time outside, regardless of the temperature, is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. According to John Sharp, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) specialist at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, humans aren’t meant to hibernate.

Not getting enough sunlight can increase our stress levels and affect our emotional and physical wellbeing, which can result in depression and fatigue, says Sharp. Lack of exposure to the outdoors can also throw off your circadian rhythms, which regulate your sleep/wake cycles and your moods and keep your digestion in check. Sunlight, even in small amounts, can have a positive impact on your overall health, as we’ll explain below.

Sunlight raises serotonin levels which affect your overall mental health. “Physiologically, we know serotonin levels in the brain are lowest in winter. Going outside can increase positive mood and alleviate depression,” says Kathryn A. Roecklein, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who conducted a study that revealed how light therapy can benefit those with seasonal mood disorders.

Inside light levels are usually lower than outside light levels. Also, since winter light levels are lower than summer light levels, being inside for extended periods of time can have a detrimental effect on our energy levels, alertness, mood and cognitive functioning, Roecklien says.

Sunlight supplies vitamin D, which promotes calcium absorption, reduces inflammation and stimulates immune function. It also increases serotonin levels, which helps elevate your mood. Sharp recommends getting at least 10 minutes of sun while walking outside each day.

Walking outdoors encourages mindfulness. By disconnecting for a bit from your computer and your phone, you will feel more present and boost your dopamine levels, which can improve your emotional outlook. Also, it is preferable to walk along a scenic route than on city streets. Researchers have found that walking around an arboretum improved the ability to recall information by almost 20 percent while walking around the city had no effect.

“Interacting with nature can have similar effects as meditating," said one of the researchers, Marc Berman, in a University of Michigan newsletter. "People don't have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits. We found the same benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in January. The only difference was that participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and summer than in the dead of winter."

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A Japanese study showed that a walk around a forest helped improve immunity by decreasing stress hormones and increasing intracellular anti-cancer proteins. Also, exercise, even in cold weather, helps flush bacteria out of your airways and lungs and prevents illness.

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