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The changing of weather and seasons can be tough on many of us. Depending on where you live, you might experience frigid cold temperatures, snowfalls and freezing rain, or for our friends in the south, the temperature shifts might only include transitioning to longer-sleeved shirts and light sweaters. But regardless of this temperature shift, if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, you get to experience the shortening of days over the winter months. 

So how does this impact our health and fertility? The challenge is in keeping up with exercise and vitamin D levels, both of which impact reproductive health. 

I commonly hear from patients that they want to stay active during this time, but it’s much more difficult to get out. Either it’s dark out by the time the workday is done, or the colder temperatures are a huge deterrent. 

Outdoor exercise: walking, hiking, running, training, cycling

Colder temperatures shouldn’t stop you from getting outside, but we have to adapt to these changes and be prepared for whatever the elements throw our way. Preparation is key and dressing weather-appropriate will make a big difference in your ability to stay outdoors. 

1) Check the weather forecast: Okay, so our weather forecasts aren’t 100% accurate, but it’s the best we have prediction-wise. Mother nature is composed of so many forces and variables that there’s no way to call every move. But mostly, we can predict rain and snow trends, and the temperature outside. 

Before you head out of the house, step outside your door. Get a feel for the air. Is it windy out? Is the ground wet? Any chance it’s going to pour down on you? Weather forecasts can help you prepare and dress appropriately for whatever mother nature sends our way. 

2) Dress appropriately: Having the right outerwear can really help if you’re out in the cold. Layer appropriately and opt for sweat-wicking fabrics to keep you dry and warm(er). 

Merino wool is a fantastic fabric for wicking away sweat and wetness. Merino wool socks are a great idea for hiking, winter or snow running, or anytime when the ground is soaked. Even if your shoes are waterproof or made with Gortex, your feet still sweat, so keep them dry with a nice pair of wool socks. 

Running and cycling wear are usually made with lighter fabrics, as your temperature will warm as you start your workout. In my experience, the first 1-2 kilometres are often the coldest, but afterwards, the body warms up and you can become overheated more easily. Experiment with how many layers you need to stay warm at different temperatures. For example, can you get away with shorts in 10°C/50°F weather? Maybe you notice that at 5°C/40°F you need a hat and long sleeves, but no jacket. Regardless, there is enough active apparel for the outdoors available, from running gloves to hats, leg warmers, down vests/jackets, slim-fitting raincoats and face guards. 

For those in climates with snow and slippery surfaces, it’s worth grabbing a pair of traction aids. Traction aids are made with a rubber webbing that stretches and fits over your shoes. They feature spikes or coils to help increase stability, and prevent slips and falls on slippery surfaces. Because of their flexible and compact design, they can be rolled up and shoved in a pocket or bag when not in use. 

3) Plan for the dark. We’re short of daylight hours, which truncates the time available to be visible outdoors. If you plan on going out as the sun is rising, setting, or after it has disappeared, wear plenty of reflective gear. Make yourself visible and avoid wearing dark colours. Bring a mini flashlight with you or have a travel light attached to you so that cars, bikes and other pedestrians can see you. A nice small headlamp will also work well and is hands free. For extra safety, have a buddy with you. If you don’t have a buddy, invest in a Road ID bracelet to have all of your emergency information on you. Road ID also makes a selection of gear with reflectors and lights to increase your visibility to others. 

Timing and motivation

During this time of year, it’s challenging to have the motivation to get outside. Or perhaps it’s an issue with discipline — or both. We miss the gorgeous days of summer, with later sunsets and earlier sunrises. 

It’s also a time of year when stress levels rise; where we could really benefit from extra self-care, but we are often left taking care of other things or other people. Getting outside and moving can be a great way to release tension and take a break. It’s well documented that regular exercise improves mood and reduces blood pressure from psychosocial stressors. 

Getting outdoors in nature presents its own unique benefits. Although exercise (even gentle exercise, or that consisting of about 30 minutes) can improve stress and mood, being outdoors around nature can be even more beneficial. The positive effects of forest-bathing have been shown in studies, but even just having a view of nature can have restorative effects on stress. Positive effects of viewing nature include an increased sense of well-being, decreased physiological stress responses, and an induction of positive emotional states.  

Access to forest trails and parks is one way to improve stress and increase motivation to be active outdoors. For those not near these types of areas, even a walk through a city or town park may be helpful, being around trees and small green spaces. 

As our days are shorter (and darker), taking advantage of the outdoors can be a positive motivator. It comes down to that feeling we get during and post-exercise, and remembering that feeling. For some, it might be a “runner’s high” and for others, just the effect of being outdoors in the fresh air or surrounded by nature. Winter shouldn’t be a deterrent from getting outdoors – instead, it should inspire new activities. Whether you like to cross-country ski, cycle, skate, hike, or any other outdoor winter activity, there are many options at all levels. Be safe and plan accordingly. Dress for the weather and make yourself visible if you’re out while the sun is down. 

And lastly, remember how great it’ll feel getting out there: it might be your stress relief from the pandemic, an escape from a hectic schedule, or it could be a family or group activity. Enjoy this time with others, bring them with you, and help motivate each other. 

Resources:

  • Cairney, J., Kwan, M.Y., Veldhuizen, S., and Faulkner, G.E. “Who uses exercise as a copy strategy for stress? Results from a national survey of Canadians” (2014) J Phys Act Health. 11(5): 908-16
  • Mata, J., Hogan, C.L., Joormann, J., et al. “Acute exercise attenuates negative affect following repeated sad mood inductions in persons who have recovered from depression” (2013) J Abnorm Psychol. 122(1): 45-50
  • Hamer, M., Taylor, A., and Steptoe, A. “The effect of acute aerobic exercise on stress related blood pressure responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis” (2006) Biol Psych. 71(2): 183-190
  • Alverson, J.J., Wiens, S., and Nilsson, M.E. “Stress recovery during exposure to nature sound and environmental noise” (2010) Int J Environ Res Public Health. 7: 1036-1046
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