Once you step outside, the first thing you’ll probably notice is how crisp and fresh the air smells. Getting outdoors in Michigan during the winter can be a brisk but welcome change compared to all those hours spent indoors. And walking in nature – even when it is cold and snowy outside – actually can offer big benefits to your physical and mental health.
Whether you choose to walk through a park on your lunch hour or try a new forest trail on a weekend afternoon, getting your exercise with a side of Mother Nature can help you relax your mind. Growing medical research on this topic is called ecotherapy.
Brain benefits. Studies have shown a link between lower levels of depression and stress and the amount of time a person spends outside in nature, according to the Cambridge Health Alliance, which is affiliated with Harvard University. One research project tracked people who walked for more than an hour in a city setting, compared to another group that walked in nature. The people who exercised in nature had lower activity in the parts of their brain that focused on negative emotions.
Even the sounds of nature can trigger positive changes in your body. Studies have shown that being somewhere you can hear a bird song or sounds like water running in a creek or wind blowing through trees can lower the body’s stress hormone levels. Hearing nature noises can also lead to a decrease in blood pressure. There’s even been some international health trends along this line in recent years.
Forest bathing. Despite its funny name, this Japanese practice of immersing yourself in a tree-filled area for long periods of time became a bit of a cross-cultural phenomenon in the last couple years. It’s a little more involved than what you’d normally call just a walk in the woods. It’s described as quiet time spent in a forest atmosphere, either walking or meditating, and leaving electronics and phones off. Think of it as the practice of mindfulness – being very aware of the present moment – while surrounded by nature.
The benefits associated with this kind of forest therapy were familiar to ecotherapists, according to the Cleveland Clinic. People who practiced this outdoor exercise regularly enjoyed lower stress levels, and some saw healthy drops not only in blood pressure but blood sugar levels.
Identify nearby nature spots. Getting into nature does not mean you have to drive to remote areas to reap the physical and mental health benefits. Check out the city, county or state parks near you. Large greenspace areas and waterfront trails are also great spots for outdoor exercise.
Dress for a Michigan winter. As any Michigander knows, getting outside in the colder months takes a few minutes of preparation. Nothing can ruin a walk in the woods faster than wet shoes or cold fingers. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Layer up: Wear synthetic layers, not cotton. Have an insulating middle layer and top it with a waterproof jacket.
- Hats and mittens: Keep your hands, head and ears covered. If your hands get cold quickly, consider adding glove liners under your gloves or mittens.
- Happy feet: Start with warm, dry socks. Wear boots or shoes with good traction. Add traction cleats or spikes to the bottoms of your footwear so you don’t lose your balance on ice.
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