5 Secrets to Winter Health and Energy

My monthly weight loss support group sat around looking rather dismal at the first meeting following an unexpected autumn snowstorm.  Winter was arriving sooner than anticipated, and my group voiced worrying thoughts about how they'd stay happy, healthy and energized—and continue losing weight—through the colder months.
Unless you live in an area that has a warm climate all year long, there is a good chance that you also face some health concerns and challenges during the winter months. The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables during the warmer months make eating healthy easy and delicious. In the heat of the summer, we just don't want to eat hot, heavy foods or turn on the oven to bake cookies or cakes.  When winter rolls around, comfort foods, many of which are high in calories and fat, tend to come calling for us. Not to mention the myriad of food-centric holidays and festivities that take place from Halloween through Valentine's Day! Couple that with the thicker, baggier and body-hiding clothing in winter and it's no wonder that our motivation to exercise and eat healthy is higher during the warmer months of the year.
Warmth and sunshine are certainly more inviting for outdoor exercise than darkness, cold, snow and ice.  Cold temperatures and shorter days with less light drain your energy, leaving you feeling lethargic and even mildly depressed.  Individuals who notice these changes year after year when winter creeps in may even be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Once looked upon skeptically by the medical community, it is now a recognized disorder. Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, estimates that 9.7% of the population in New Hampshire suffer from SAD (compare that to his estimate of just 1.4% of the population in sunny Florida). 
Taking all of these factors into consideration, it's no wonder my clients were concerned.  I did my best to reassure them, as I want to do for you.  Regardless of whether you actually have SAD, or just notice yourself feeling sluggish during the winter season, there are many things you can do to alleviate or prevent the winter blues and stay healthy and happy despite the weather outside.
Here are five secrets to achieve winter health and energy all season long.
  1. Do everything in your power to avoid getting sick.  There is nothing that will sap your energy more than being ill. Colds and flu seem to spike during the winter months. Caused by viruses, they are spread mostly by placing our virus-contaminated hands to our faces.  So the number one line of defense is to wash your hands, including under the nails and in between fingers, for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water—and to do so frequently.  Carry hand sanitizer gels in your car, briefcase and pocketbook for times when you can't wash your hands. 

    Boost your immune system to keep your defenses high by getting plenty of sleep and drinking lots of water, which will help keep nasal passages hydrated. Eat nourishing, vitamin packed foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, yogurt, and lean protein.  Keep up your exercise program and discuss with your doctor whether or not getting a flu shot makes sense for you.  Research has shown that individuals who practice these healthy habits get sick less often.
  2.  Maintain and shake up your exercise routine.  Exercise has been shown to prevent depression and lift the moods of those feeling down.  It also helps keep your immune system working efficiently.  Maintaining your exercise routine will offset some of the extra calories from seasonal treats and celebrations as well.

    The best way to bust through a plateau and continue to increase your fitness capacity throughout the winter is to change your exercise routine.  Winter is the perfect opportunity to try a different type of machine or exercise class at the gym.  Borrow DVD's from the library or Netflix, and try a home workout in your cozy living room.  If you are really adventurous, embrace the winter and try a cold-weather sport such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or ice-skating.  Unless the conditions are icy, excessively windy or cold, there will be many days when you will be able to enjoy outdoor exercise all winter long. Invest in some gloves, a fleece headband, tights and turtlenecks made by the many all-weather sports clothing manufacturers.  You just might find a reason to look forward to winter after all.    
  3.  Enjoy a variety of winter foods.  Although summer offers a bounty of fresh fruit and veggies at affordable prices (think melons, berries and tomatoes), many produce items ripen in winter.  From hearty root vegetables to bright, sweet citrus fruits, winter produce offers a surprising range of flavors.  Winter squashes such as acorn, butternut and spaghetti, are low in calories, high in health-promoting vitamins, and easy to cook.  Apples and many citrus fruits such as clementines and grapefruits are often at their sweetest when temperatures are cool.  Experiment with vegetables that you may not have tried cooking before, such as beets, broccoli rabe or Brussels sprouts. 

    Since the cold weather probably has you staying home more, take time to prepare homemade soups or stews.  Make some baked apples for a wonderfully nutritious low-calorie dessert or snack that also fills your home with a warm and delightful aroma.  If you don't already own one, consider investing in a slow cooker.  Throw together a few choice ingredients and you'll be thrilled to come home to a fully-prepared dinner.  Lighten up old favorite comfort food recipes, or find new ones at www.sparkrecipes.com.  
  4. Think light and bright. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health has found that exposure to bright light in the early morning can be a powerful, fast and effective treatment for seasonal depression.  There's no reason to think it wouldn't help those of us who experience the winter blahs!  As soon as you wake, turn on bright lights in your home, open the curtains and lift the shades. When participating in outdoor exercise, if possible, do so in the early morning hours—or at least during the day before the sun goes down.  If you are lucky enough to own a fireplace, use it often.  The warmth from the fire and the flickering light is calming and relaxing.  Even if you don't have access to a fireplace, try scented candles and see how it warms up your home and improves your mood. 

    If you find yourself still feeling unusually blue and lethargic despite your efforts to get enough light, talk to your doctor about your feelings and discuss a trial with light therapy.  There is absolutely no reason to feel sad until springtime.
  5. Find your inner child and invite him/her out to play.  When we were kids, there was nothing that made us happier than a snowstorm.  School would be cancelled, giving us an excuse to sleep in, watch TV for hours, go sledding or build a snowman.  My siblings and I would play scrabble, monopoly, and work on jigsaw puzzles—when we weren't outside in the snow.
    As adults, a snowstorm can mean lost income, kids or pets tracking snow into our houses, walkways to shovel and, generally, a major hassle.  But what if we gave ourselves permission to act like a child again?  Instead of fretting over all the problems the winter has caused, why not find the opportunities we may overlook at other times of the year?  How about we slow down our crazy life of always needing to be doing something "productive" and engage in some fun and meaningful activities?  Put on your boots and gloves, and head out into the snow to build a snowman, have a snowball fight, or make snow angels.  Find the board games and puzzles, and enjoy some interactive play.  Or, just curl up under your favorite blanket and read a great book as the snowflakes fall outside your window, blanketing the world in a beautiful winter white.  The cold can be a great excuse to stay home and relax, find some much needed down time, and enjoy things we don't normally take the time to do—if you choose to view it that way.
With a shift in your mindset, winter does not have to be a time of lethargy, illness or unhappiness.  Let it be the season to partake in seasonal pleasures that you get to enjoy, rather than a season that you have to endure.