Surviving Winter – It Takes a Village

Ah, winter in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  This is an area characterized by challenging and unpredictable weather all year.  A few days ago our temperatures went from -21 degrees to +40 in the span of about 24 hours.  We often say that we can experience all 4 seasons in a single day, sometimes in a matter of hours.  A visitor once asked me “what is typical weather for this time of year?” and I could only reply “there is no ‘typical'”.  The best advice on any given day is to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  During my years in New England I kept a running log that included what I wore each day to accommodate weather conditions.  Using this guide I was able to decide how to dress within 5 degree increments of temperature change in either direction.  After arriving in South Dakota, that guide soon went out the window.  There are so many variables affecting outdoor comfort here that it is almost impossible to know what to wear.  Even though I subscribe to the theory that there is no bad weather – only poor clothing choices, it’s worth repeating that my best advice is still to dress in layers and be prepared for anything.  Since I try to get outdoors as much as possible all year long, I also advocate carrying a backpack big enough to allow for the addition and subtraction of clothing as conditions change.

Having said all of that, there are hazards to outdoor activities in the winter.  After a stint of super cold and snowy weather it is not uncommon to experience a welcome break in the action featuring sunny days and temperatures that can even reach the 50’s.  As attractive as these periods of respite are, they bring with them a pattern of thaw and freeze that can create dangerous ice.  This past week pretty much everyone I talked to has had some kind of fall on the ice, myself included.  Each new storm spreads a new layer of snow on top of the previous layer of ice.  The new snow sometimes provides extra traction, but it also masks what’s hidden beneath it.  A layer of black ice underneath a shallow layer of snow brought me down.  Fortunately I was not significantly injured, but it was enough of a scare to drive me indoors to the dreaded treadmill.  It takes a lot to get me on the treadmill , but as I get older the possibility of serious injury from falling looms large.  As much as I love being outdoors, it’s not worth the risk.  A few mild and sunny days in a row can be sufficient to clear one of my favorite winter walking areas.  It’s worth the wait.

The good news is I don’t have to use the treadmill every day.  There are other indoor options.  It’s times like these that I am especially grateful for my yoga and Pilates practices.  Both disciplines supplement and support my walking so that I can stay strong and mobile throughout the long winter.  There are many other reasons to bring mind/body practices into your life at any time of year, but winter can be a particularly good time.  Despite the fact that we’ve passed the solstice (yay!) the days are still short.  Little by little we are seeing changes in the extent of daylight in the afternoons, but mornings are still really dark.  An article from Harvard Health Publications titled “Let the Sun Shine Mind Your Mental Health This Winter” points out that winter can throw off the circadian rhythms of our natural internal clocks.  This can affect moods and even overall mental health.  We’ve all heard of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” which, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a type of depressions that occurs with the changing of the seasons.  The Harvard Health article emphasizes the importance of physical exercise as an antidote for this problem.  Just 30 minutes of daily exercise not only helps relieve stress but also “may help your body release endorphins, your natural ‘happy hormones'” which can help elevate your mood naturally, without drugs.  The article further advocates yoga as a meditative practice that can help quiet the mind and mitigate symptoms of depression.

Another article in Harvard Health Publications titled “How Simply Moving Benefits Your Mental Health” provides additional support for exercise as a mental health booster.  The article states that regular exercise “can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive”.  In fact, according to this article exercise can “be as effective as medication and psychotherapies“.  Exercise boosts mood “by increasing a brain protein called BDNF that helps nerve fibers grow.”  The article specifically identifies yoga and other practices “in which you pay close attention to your bodily sensations, position in space, and . . . breathing as you move. . .  can reduce the severity of symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder. Changing your posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change your brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and lead to a feeling of well-being.”  The article goes on to say although you can practice these disciplines on your own, “a recent study found that when you try to move in synchrony with someone else, it also improves your self-esteem.”  I love this result!  Not only are mind/body movement disciplines shown to improve mental health, but moving with others makes the practice even better.  There are many reasons to take classes but here is another one we can add to that list.  Since “synchronizing” can imply mimicking, I don’t necessarily advocate doing this in a class, especially if you are new to the practice. However, especially in Pilates we do think about the rhythm of our movements so perhaps we could consider the class like an orchestra with each of us moving in concert with one another – not necessarily mirroring others but still making individual contributions to the presentation as a whole.  What a great concept!

If you still need more reasons to find a way to keep moving even when conditions outdoors may be discouraging, let me cite one more article in Harvard Health Publications.  This one, titled “Challenge Your Mind and Body to Sharpen Your Thinking Skills” by Heidi Godman, an intriguing title all by itself, highlights the advantages of both movement and social engagement. The article cites Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, who says “Until the mid-1990s, we thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with. We now know that the growth of new cells — a process called neurogenesis — occurs throughout life, even in older age.” And the good news is “researchers have found that physical exercise leads to the release of cellular growth factors that are important for neurogenesis.” Furthermore, the “combination of growth factors and new brain cells that comes from healthy living, challenging the brain, and staying socially connected in a meaningful way may actually help protect the brain or keep it more resilient against changes that cause dementia”.  Classes in yoga and Pilates accomplish all three of those goals – challenging the brain through connecting the mind to physical movement, social connections with other class participants and, as Dr. Papp puts it, “the grand poobah of them all: exercising.”  Seems to me that this is one more reason to give classes a try.  Although there are no guarantees, it certainly can’t hurt.

If you’re new to regular movement practices, my advice remains to take it slow, go at your own pace, don’t worry about what you look like and just keep at it.  Remember that the goal is practice, not perfection.  But keeping all of the advantages mentioned above up front in your mind might help keep you motivated when you’re tempted to quit.  And if you continue to practice you just might find that you begin to notice the difference in both your mental and physical well-being.  What is that worth to you?  Seems to me it’s priceless!

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