Tips to Bolster Mental and Physical Health
It’s been gray and cold outside. I feel washing down hot cocoa smothered in whipped cream, sinking back into my recliner, and waking up in April. But let’s touch on the simple joys, the short naps, the comforts of winter—and bolster our resolve to bolster our mental, physical, and emotional health!
Forget New Year’s resolutions. About mid-January is we’ve recovered from the holidays and the dormant winter months set in. How do we maintain or even improve our mental, emotional, and physical fitness for staying healthy during the long slog?
None of the strategies I employ is new. I’ve written about most of them before in this space.
They never become habits. I have to recommit to them every day. And remembering is especially difficult in winter. I assume that’s also true for many of you, so a few of the tips are worth repeating.
- Get outdoors every day, weather be damned. The winter blahs have a lot to do with the lack of light. Merely stepping out into the wider natural world confers health benefits. To keep this commitment during the winter, you need the right clothes (lightweight, “wicking” layers, treaded soles or Yaktrax), maybe a pair of adjustable trekking poles and snowshoes.
- Get enough sleep, but don’t hibernate. I aim to sleep seven hours a day. As I’ve grown older, my sleep patterns have become more erratic. I find myself waking more often during the night and napping occasionally during the day. I’ve reduced my coffee consumption (somewhat), and try to forgo both TV and the Internet an hour before I hit the sheets.
Cooking more from scratch. A lot of people are cooking more, thanks to COVID– and it is likely they will keep doing it after. Why not view these months as a chance to get good at cooking? You’ll save money, generate less waste, and eat healthier meals. You’re likely to gain less winter weight. Forget the idea that you don’t have time. Scratch cooking does require planning. Own a couple of good vegetable-cutting knives. Make friends with a crock pot. Make enough soup (chili, stew, chowder) for three or four meals. Learn to make a great omelet. Fill a cooking bag or roasting pan with enough chicken to last a week; freeze or refrigerate the leftovers.
- Eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, and lentils. Make them the stars of every meal. Why? Because a wealth of clinical research confirms the numerous health and mental health benefits of diets rich in these plant ingredients. Vegetables and dried legumes fill you up, so you’ll be less likely to crave or pig out on the ubiquitous rich treats that greet you at every turn during the winter holiday season. Except for fried potatoes, it’s almost impossible to overdose on fruits, veggies, and legumes.
- Exercise more. (I’ve written a lot about the importance of exercise here, here, here, and here. Yes, it gets colder and darker as winter approaches, and more challenging to stay active. Especially for those of us living in the northern states, a sort of semi-hibernation syndrome attacks: we want to eat more, sleep more, and move less. Challenge yourself to find something you can do to move your muscles and get your heartrate up for half an hour. You don’t have to love, or even like it. But you do have to do it—even if it’s just bundling up and trotting around the driveway in a blizzard, or running in place pumping hand weights while you watch the evening news.
- Laugh more. Laughter brings real health benefits. Not in the mood? Even faking it seems to do a body good.
- Keep an attitude of gratitude. Feeling and expressing gratitude—an important tenet in most religious and spiritual traditions around the world—clinically shown to improve people’s happiness, along with their sleep
- Practice hygge. A word without an English analogue that the Danes use to describe themselves, hygge means something like “creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people around you.” The Danes live 11 degrees of latitude north of the U.S.’s lower 48, so their cold, dark winters start earlier and last longer than ours. Yet for decades they’ve topped the list of the happiest people in the world and among the top five healthiest.
- Let a joy keep you. I save this (the title of a poem by Carl Sandberg) for last because it underlies and supports the others. Holding a simple joy in my mind incorporates and transcends feeling grateful. Everybody can find a simple joy to carry around in their mind today. Sandberg ends his poem like this:
Let joy kill you!
Keep away from the little deaths.
Holding a simple joy in the heart prevents the “little deaths” from creeping in and taking over: the hurtful remark, the aches and pains, the empty checkbook, the lost opportunity, the unwelcome chores of the moment (or dreading the six dark months of lugging firewood, hauling out the ashes, shoveling snow).
My joy for today? Luxuriating in my ratty, old recline, basking in the radiant heat of our living room woodstove, secure in the knowledge we have enough dry wood to last until April.
A short nap perhaps? I think I will!