It’s 17 degrees. Let’s go to the park.

It’s 17 degrees. Let’s go to the park.

A week ago right now, as I write this, it was 70 degrees and sunny. My kids and I spent the afternoon hiking on a local trail. I told them we were banking the fresh air and Vitamin D before the expected cold front blew through.

It blew, all right. Right now it’s a record-setting 15 degrees (wind chill: 2) and there’s snow on the ground.

Today was my opportunity to put my money were my mouth is, or my feet where my heart is, or something like that, because last week, while the weather was still balmy, I resolved that every day this winter I would put my feet on the path of the park by our house.

I gave myself a few exceptions: I don’t do ice, period. And I don’t need to go out in the driving rain—especially not the horrid freezing rain of winter. Shudder. 

park winter 2

But if it was just cold, or snowy, or dreary out—and goodness knows we’ll see plenty of dreary in the coming months—I would get myself to the park.

It’s a short walk from our house, a city block or two. But the park provides a goal, a destination, an incentive to get myself out of the house. “Hitting the park everyday” is concrete and measurable, actionable and specific, all those things that goal-setters love. I even plugged it into my commit app so it could nag me to get moving.

If my personal experience has taught me anything about winter, it’s that I need to get myself out of the house and into the fresh air, preferably during daylight, as often as possible. 

I have an uneasy relationship with these dark and cold months. I do okay during the holidays (anticipation! parties! twinkle lights!) but once January hits I ache for sunlight. I have three big coping mechanisms (four if you count “not eating crap”): my happy light, exercise, and getting outside.

I need all of these components to make it through winter as a whole and healthy person.

park winter

On any given frigid wintry afternoon, I would much rather stay inside and stay warm than venture outdoors. At least, that would be my choice in the moment. 

But I’ve learned my body is so very grateful for any authentic, non-pharmaceutical Vitamin D it can get between October and April. I hate the thought of going outside, but once I’m out there, it’s (usually) not that bad.

Especially on days like today when the snow is brilliant and the sun is shining.

I chose the park as my destination because it’s specific, measurable, and aesthetically pleasing. If my feet touch the park path, I’ll pick up 2000 steps or so. That’s enough to vault me from around-the-house ho-hummery (3000 steps) to something I might be able to live with on a horrible winter day (5000, far from my preferred 10k, but not appalling).

(Did I lose you with the steps thing? The backstory is here.)

But once I’m in the park, I want to stay there. It’s such a good place to spin out. I want to go a little further—especially if I’m walking the dog, and I usually am. My daily goal is just to put my feet on the park path, and I’m satisfied to meet that minimum. But if it leads to more time outside, so much the better.

Harriet (that would be the dog in question) and I took a test stroll today, the first day I really had to force myself outdoors. We waited until afternoon, when it had warmed up to 18 degrees.

It felt freezing, at first. But I got used to it (while resolving to find my earmuffs the second I got home), and Harriet never seemed to mind. We hit the park path, and it was so beautiful and sunny and glorious that we just kept going.

park winter feet in snow

The path was a little icy in places, so we trudged through the snow instead. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to run through a field of fresh snow with your overly-energetic dog while the sun shines down on you (when nobody else is there to watch, because they’re scared off by the cold).

I don’t like winter. It’s cold and its grey and I miss my daylight.

But I think if I actually head out into it, to meet it head-on, instead of hide from it, I’ll like it a little bit more.

That’s why you’ll find me at the park every day—almost—getting my exercise and my Vitamin D.

What are your favorite winter coping strategies? I’m all ears—I need all the tips I can get!

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61 comments

  1. Emily says:

    For this reason, I’m glad that we have a dog (among others!). She’s still a young puppy, so we really can’t skip. The daily exercise that she prompts is always welcome, but especially so in the winter. Fresh air does make all the difference.

    Warm beverages also keep me happy. I’m a year-round coffee drinker, but come December, I break out the tea and cocoa. Warming myself from the inside out is one of the only ways I can beat a chill once I catch cold.

    • Anne says:

      Yes to winter tea. 🙂 I don’t drink it that much in the summer but I make cups and cups on cold winter days. It’s a much more pleasant way to stay hydrated than tall glasses of ice water. 🙂

  2. Tiffany says:

    What do you wear to stay warm? When it dips that low, my coat doesn’t quite cut it. And I hate feeling so cold, especially my ears and face. But even a 10 minute walk during the day would do wonders for me. I’ve been dreading this winter after how hard last winter was. I’ve got a blue light and I bought an alarm clock that imitates a sunrise and then birds sing at alarm time. Much better than waking up in a dark room.

    • Jamie says:

      Tiffany –
      If I may, I strongly recommend Smart Wool socks and Patagonia thermal base layers for staying warm! Neither is cheap but Patagonia runs really good sales (if you watch for them) and literally lasts forever – my husband still has shirts he bought from them 15 years ago, and they’re only recently starting to show their age.

      Also, if you can find one second hand somewhere, NSF Antarctic-issue parkas are the best thing ever. You’ll look like a giant green/orange marshmallow, but you’ll be completely toasty! 🙂

    • Anne says:

      There are better tips here than this, but my answer is layers, layers, layers. And a hat. And when it gets really cold, actually decent gloves and not just cute thin cotton ones.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I lived in Stockholm for 18 months and as a South African, the winter was especially tough for me! It was the first time I had experienced snow, and the added darkness was a shock to my system. I forced myself outside everyday, even in rain, and sometimes found myself going out more than once. I really appreciate our bright, sunny (but cold!) winter days in Johannesburg a lot more now…

  4. Jamie says:

    Ooo…good strategy. I’m so glad others have to make action plans for winter months. (And you’re right: Holiday months? No prob. Come January? Come back to me, Sun.) I am taking 4,000 whatever-measurements of Vitamin D, and 3,000 Vitamin B12 every day. I will continue to teach 5 senior adult fitness classes a week. I adore my students and the classes get me out among people, which is my number one strategy for staying sane. In the last two months I quit teaching both of the classes in which I personally got a workout, so I am committing to exercise on my own two times a week. If I don’t, I feel so bleh. I am going to continue blogging at least several times a week. Writing = processing. The plan is to get my tush to the library or a coffee shop while the youngest is in preschool two afternoons a week. I have a feeling I’ll be more productive there than at home. And of course my friends and small group and play dates and coffee dates and walking dates at the Y and hosting dinners will all contribute to mental health. Community = sanity. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Lisa says:

    I wear th insulate ski pants and coat. Thin but very warm. I usually slip them over my jeans. Good gloves, a hat, a scarf, a ski mask, earbuds with podcasts. My dog. I too need to get back in the swing of cold walks. I hate being cold so my get-up works. Try snow pants you can slip over your pants. You could probably pick them up at thrift stores……

  6. This is a good goal, and one I’m trying to do as well — getting outside for at least a little bit. Although we are planning on getting a treadmill so the running/walking/preggo-shuffling thing doesn’t have to happen on ice for the next few months.

  7. Jeannie says:

    I think you’re so right about getting out into winter, Anne. In his book “Let Your Life Speak,” Parker Palmer elaborates on exactly the same point (excuse the long quote):

    “In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Here people spend good money on warm clothing so that they can get outdoors and avoid the ‘cabin fever’ that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the hard-frozen months. If you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear. Our inward winters take many forms — failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them — protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance — we can learn what they have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.”

    On the other hand (from the sublime to the ridiculous) you might listen to “Honest Toddler,” who tweeted yesterday “She said it’s too cold to go to the park and we can try again in April. 🙁 .” 😀

  8. Susan says:

    I learned to always wear a hat while walking my doggy in chilly weather! Getting out the door and on your way is the biggest hurdle.

    I just flew in to Chicago last night, and during my 3weeks stateside I am challenging myself to walk every day. Even during my week in Alaska, which – by the way- is warmer this week than Chicago!

  9. Shannon says:

    There is a great book/program developed here in the land of gray skies, Seattle, called The Body Blues that you’ve nearly duplicated. They did a great study on a condition where your body actually becomes depressed – the treatment plan is light therapy, moderate exercise (preferably when the sun is highest/should be the highest) and vitamins. I need to pull it back out and refresh my vitamins. We are heading into the glum again and I don’t handle it well at all. http://www.geneva-health.com/bodyblues/

  10. Sloan says:

    Okay, this is going to be the motivation I need to get out and walk the dog in the mornings. Unfortunately, it’s dark by the time I get home from work so this will have to be something I make an effort to do in the mornings. The right clothes are key!

  11. Anne says:

    I think this is excellent advice. I was getting up and walking in the morning, but I have fizzled out due to baby’s sleep changes and weather. I could get myself out the door for a cold walk, but I struggle getting *everyone* out together (3 kids, including older baby).

  12. Keely says:

    This is inspiring, Anne. I don’t have anything within walking distance that could serve as a goal, but we have a great walkable neighborhood and my kids and I would both benefit from a daily dose of fresh (albeit cold) air.

  13. Tracy S. says:

    When the days are short, I may only see the sun at lunchtime so I have the exact same happy light (I am now going to call it that). I got it out this morning so my daughter and I could have a bit of fake sunshine before we left the house for work and school. I try to do twenty minutes with the light in the morning in the dark months, but today I knew I would be lucky to get even ten minutes with the light. I let go of my desire to do it perfect and it gave us a start that was better than nothing!

  14. Jennifer says:

    i am a runner and the cold usually doesn’t stop me from layering up and hitting the sidewalks. There is amazing winter running clothes available. However, our cold blast came through and dropped us to -4 degrees and we were lucky the days it got above 10! My issue is when the roads get snowy and/or icy. But with a nice pair of yaktrax (just $20 for a walking pair or $40 for a running pair) there is much less of a chance of slipping.

    i am also blessed to have access to an indoor track where i can still pack in the miles (even if it does mean 70 laps around).

  15. Tuija says:

    Winter… hello from Northern Europe, where today the sun rose at 8.30 AM and set before 4 PM. And the days will keep getting shorter until December 22. The darkness is sometimes hard for me. If the sun shines, it’s probably a cold day, but I’ll do my best to catch some sunlight outdoors.

    For cold weather: clothing in layers. Fleece. Wool. Thermal underwear. Hat, scarf, really thick gloves/mittens. Boots with thick soles. The thing is, when it’s really cold every year and it’s likely to last several months, it just makes sense to invest in good warm winter clothes. So we do. And then go out and enjoy the snow. The darkness is easier to bear, too, when the snow comes.

  16. Steph says:

    Realistically, getting outside everyday with my 18 month old and 5 year old just won’t happen. That said, I try not to go two days in a row without venturing out. I try to think of January and February (and March and April) as hibernating days to do more reading and projects around the house. Keeping that perspective in front of me helps, but certainly doesn’t eliminate the winter blues.

  17. Katherine S. says:

    Excellent post, Anne! I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder so this really resonated with me. I have been trying to plan out my winter survival tactics the past several weeks. Our winter coping strategies are very similar. In addition to what you mentioned I am trying to figure out some class or weekly project that I can work on to keep my mind focused and give me something to look forward to every week. My husband just agreed that we can take a vacation in January instead of the summer to break up the long winter! I can’t wait! Also, I do supplement with Fermented Cod Liver Oil and another vitamin D supplement, because it is just about impossible to get enough Vitamin D from the sun when you are all bundled up. When all else fails and the winter blues really get to me, I write depressing poetry, haha. It is very cathartic.

    • Anne says:

      I love the idea of a January vacation! I hope you’re headed someplace sunny…. 🙂

      And I’m cracking up at the depressing poetry. Cathartic, indeed. 🙂

  18. Tina B says:

    This is a wonderful goal, Anne. I hope you’ll keep us updated on how it goes. I’m sure your dog will love it! I’m writing from sunny Orlando where the “natives” are freezing today with the temps dipping into the 40’s. I have to take advantage of these few “cold” days to wear my corduroys and sweaters. While I don’t miss the snow and ice of Illinois, I do miss some of the fun winter clothes (but only for a day or two). Best wishes!

  19. I’m with you – I try to get outdoors as much as possible, even in the dreary winter. January and February are my downfall too often. I work for a 5k everyday, and do it on our neighborhood streets (which are pleasant and park-like). The things that give me permission to stay indoors? Temps below 20 degrees, biting wind or precipitation. On those days, I do the Nodic Trac.

  20. Yep. Living in the often frigid/dark Northeast (and I’m a native Texan!), I have to get outside or I’ll go crazy. I have a happy light too, and I do have to walk when I commute – which is a good thing. And as you know, I drink gallons of tea. Love reading everyone’s tips!

  21. danielle says:

    I love what winter we get in Oklahoma so I am probably not much help. We love to do winter activities when we visit in laws in MN. Like Snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or sledding. I like being trapped at my home when we do get snow with no where to go because the city has shut down 🙂

    • Jaime says:

      I was starting to think I’m the only one who loves winter. There’s something about that cold, crisp air that makes me snap to life. I’m more likely to try to hibernate in the summer heat!

      • danielle says:

        At least this summer was not as bad as some of the ones in the past! I would step outside and think you should not sweat at 6am just because you stepped out the door! 🙂 Fireplace, snow, tea, and good book. Perfect way to spend a month or two.

        • Anne says:

          NO KIDDING! I could even wear jeans on some summer days, and that’s unheard of around here!

          And I think you’re on to something with “fireplace, snow, tea, and good book.” 🙂

  22. Heather says:

    Yup, I agree with everyone. A young dog who insists on walks, warm layers all over my body, getting out there and embracing the winter season which is a long, dark part of our year…
    I would rather stay inside but I always reward outdoor time with a mug of tea and a good read (like this blog, Anne, which is becoming a daily thing with me).
    Also include creativity. Drawing, painting, baking, any creative expression is saving my life right now.

  23. I hear ya! We are having a heat wave here today….38 degrees right now! 😉 The sun is shining and I love it! May need to look into the happy light for those gloomy days during the winter. I do love getting to enjoy all four seasons here in the Midwest. I enjoy the family movie nights and game nights that come with an earlier sunset and having to be inside the house by 5:30.

    • Anne says:

      “I enjoy the family movie nights and game nights that come with an earlier sunset and having to be inside the house by 5:30.”

      Yes to this. 🙂

  24. Jen says:

    Great post! I live in an area with cold winters too and tend to want to hibernate inside during the cold months too. A great reminder that the fresh air and exercise, even in the cold, will probably do me a world of good this winter!

  25. Kristin says:

    I’m a runner and I commit to myself to run 3-4 mornings per week. Last week it was in the 60s and this week it’s in the 30s. Brrr… I run early in the morning before my husband leaves for work and even in my sleep, I think about how much I’ll dread leaving my warm bed to venture out into wind that bites and air that feels well below freezing. You know what, though? It is NEVER as bad as I anticipate and I always return energized and ready to face a new day.

    • Anne says:

      “It is NEVER as bad as I anticipate and I always return energized and ready to face a new day.”

      That’s my experience too. (Unless it’s icy. I HATE ice! I had several runs where I ended up on my bum last year….)

      • Kristin says:

        Ice is not fun and I live on a rural road where they rarely do any snow or ice removal. Last year learned how to dodge the messy areas and run (moderately) safely in tire tracks! I haven’t fallen yet so that’s a win in my book.

  26. Rachel says:

    “But I think if I actually head out into it, to meet it head-on, instead of hide from it, I’ll like it a little bit more.”

    That’s pretty amazing advice for anything in life 🙂

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