This time of year, powder hounds head for the mountain resorts, surfers in coastal states seek out big winter swells and the rest of us try to make do with gym sessions. But if you’re confining yourself to indoor workouts while it’s cold outside, you’re missing out. There’s nothing wrong with crushing an interval session on the rowing machine or moving some iron, but you should do yourself a favor and supplement such activities with a daily walk, no matter what the weather is doing. Here are a few reasons to bundle up and head out into the great beyond (or, if you’re city-bound, explore some nearby parks or green spaces):
Find Your Flow
We often associate flow states just with fast-paced extreme sports–hucking a waterfall on a Class V river, nailing a double-black run on our favorite ski hill, getting barreled at our local surf break. But while these adrenaline-triggering activities are the quickest routes to deep flow, they’re not the only path. Just taking a walk (with your phone turned off and headphones in your pocket, preferably, so you don’t disrupt the concentration that’s central to flow) outside for 20 or 30 minutes can help you disengage the pre-frontal cortex and get you into a flow state. The benefits don’t end when your walk does – according to Steven Kotler in his riveting book Rise of Superman, they can continue for hours. So if you’ve got a big project to finish and are getting nowhere, push away from your laptop, put your winter boots on and take a walk. When you get back you’ll be a brand new you.
Wave Goodbye to Stress
A bevy of research shows that simply looking at pictures of trees, the ocean and other natural phenomena lowers blood pressure and inflammation markers. Actually getting ourselves into the outdoors amps up the stress-busting effect. On a day that you’re really feeling flustered, anxious or overworked, try a little experiment. Write down your stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the max. Now go and take a walk outside, come back in and re-record your stress level. I bet you’ll notice a big difference in your mood and emotional state. No surprises, as many studies demonstrate that regular immersion in the natural world is more effective than SSRIs for combating depression.
Recalibrate Your Senses
When was the last time you tried to differentiate between two different birds chirping, watched the sunset or smelled the smoke from a wood fire? We get so trapped by our technology that we end up blunting our senses–from always-in headphones to staring at static screens for hours on end. Our eyes are meant to toggle between things that are right in front of us and those in the middle to far distance. But we spend the majority of our day glued to our phone, computer monitor, tablet or TV and start to lose our innate telescopic vision and spatial awareness. Producers amp up the loudness of digital music to make up for the narrowness of the non-analog sound, and so our ears get attuned to thumping bass, wailing treble and lose the ability to pick out the nuances that nature’s noises can provide (or even vinyl recordings, for that matter). The cure is simple: get outside and try to re-tune your senses.
As Scott Carney points out in his brilliant book What Doesn’t Kill Us, our indoor lifestyles also get us too comfortable with being, well, comfortable. We control the temperature of our cars, homes, and workplaces, block out sunlight with shades and insulate ourselves from the ravages of extreme weather by staying inside. In doing so, we’re trying to undo millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to our surroundings and limiting what our bodies should be capable of. When you go out into nature, even if it’s just for a quick lunchtime stroll, you lose the false sense that you’re in control. The breeze at your back, the sun on your face, the crunch of snow beneath your feet – exposure to these elements is restorative. And if you do get too cold, you force your body to warm up naturally, a capability we’ve blunted by sticking within the safe, comfy confines of our human-created society. You don’t have to go to extremes to re-sensitize yourself. Instead, just commit to doing something outside every day.