How braving bad weather could boost your health this winter

With COVID-19 showing no sign of disappearing just yet, and cold and flu season upon us, it's essential for you to focus on your wellbeing. Discover how getting outdoors – even in bad weather – could actually be good for you.

 

'If you go out in that, you'll catch your death!' If your mother is anything like mine, she’s told you this phrase time and time again. But is it true? Is braving bad weather harmful to your health – or are there some surprising benefits?

This time last year, the idea of an 'outdoors' Irish winter was unimaginable. If you saw someone sitting outside having a coffee in November 2019, you'd have gotten your eyes tested. What a difference a year makes. With COVID-19 restrictions enforced throughout Ireland, food and drink 'al fresco' has become the norm.

The effect of being stuck at home more has even led some people to start intentionally walking in the rain. And as it turns out, they’re not completely mad - there are some unexpected advantages to spending more time outside.

 

The mental health benefits of getting outside

Heading outdoors – especially into nature – has significant advantages for your mental wellbeing. The Japanese have studied this effect in detail. In 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed incorporating shinrin-yoko or 'forest bathing' into a healthy lifestyle. Forest bathing involves spending time immersed in nature and using your senses to soak in the world around you.

A series of studies starting in 2005 looked at the science behind forest bathing and the associated mental health benefits. One of these studies analysed stress hormones in people's urine before and after a forest bathing experience. The researchers found there were significantly lower levels of stress hormones after shinrin-yoko. Another study in the same series concluded that 'forest bathing trips were found to significantly increase the score for vigor and decrease the scores for anxiety, depression, and anger.'

 

Additionally, research looking at the health benefits of going for a walk in the park in winter found evidence of decreased stress among study participants.

Conversely, not getting outside can have a significant detrimental effect on your mental health.  A joint study between Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studied the emotional state of 2,392 people under a 'stay at home' order. They found high levels of depression, sleep disturbance, irritability and decreased libido. The authors of the study also noted that 'the frequency and severity of these symptoms seem to be closely related to the [amount of] time staying indoors.'

 

The immune benefits of spending time outdoors in winter

 

Getting outside has been shown to boost our immune systems. The Japanese, in their studies into forest bathing, found a beneficial effect on the immune system. There was an increase in 'natural killer cells' (or NK cells) in the bloodstream of their study participants. NK cells play a significant role in our immune system, especially when it comes to fighting viruses.

It may seem strange that spending time outdoors in winter is beneficial for immunity. Flus and colds are undoubtedly more common in the winter, but that’s not just due to winter weather. Scientists believe that human behaviour in winter plays a significant role. We tend to spend more time indoors and have closer contact with each other than in warmer months, hence giving infectious bugs more of a chance to spread.

 

This winter habit of groups of individuals huddling indoors could be particularly detrimental this season – potentially leading to an increase in coronavirus cases.

Although there is some laboratory evidence that lower temperatures may impair how well the immune system functions, human studies have found that colder temperatures can boost immune function.

 

Two separate human studies have looked at the immune effects of immersion in cold water in healthy men. As with the Japanese studies, they found an increase in natural killer cells, along with other important immune cells (leucocytes, granulocytes and interleukin-6).

 

The final word

 

Every winter is a bit different to the last, but this year COVID-19 has meant the season ahead is particularly uncertain. This makes it all the more important for you to prioritise your health. Getting outside could boost not just your mental wellbeing, but your immune system too (though it is best to remember what your mother told you and wrap up warm!).

With coronavirus on everyone’s minds, it’s essential that we all watch out for each other. So when braving the outdoors remember these crucial public health messages:

  • Stay 2 metres away from others outside your bubble

  • Cover up your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing

  • Wash your hands well and often to avoid contamination

 

If COVID-19 restrictions have upended your winter plans, why not refocus and try to have more of an 'outdoors' Irish winter this year? Whether it's a walk in the rain, a cappuccino in the cold, or breakfast on the balcony, you could give it a go. Your body and mind will thank you for it!

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