Photo: Beat the (never-ending) winter blues with outdoor exercise

(Credit: Let Ideas Compete)

By Dr. Melissa Lem

Melissa Lem is a Toronto family physician who works and hikes in rural and remote communities across Canada. She holds a faculty appointment with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, guest blogs for Evergreen and regularly appears as a medical expert on CBC television's lifestyle show Steven and Chris.

If you're like many Canadians, you might be hiding indoors to escape the seemingly never-ending winter. However, hibernators are missing out on one powerful way to beat the winter blues: outdoor exercise!

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Although hitting the gym is certainly great for your health, an outdoor workout is best of all. Along with lowering risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, exercising in nature has an especially potent effect on mental wellbeing. A 2011 review from the UK revealed that walking or running in green space compared to the same exercise indoors resulted in superior energy, self-esteem and positive engagement, as well as reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. In a 2013 Australian study, athletes who trained outdoors enjoyed Vitamin D levels that were almost 50 per cent higher. What's more, people who get moving outside report greater intent to continue their exercise routines—an important finding given that just 15 per cent of adults and seven per cent of children meet recommended physical activity guidelines.

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Not surprisingly, a 2004 study of over 20,000 Canadians showed that adults expend 31 per cent more energy per day in the summer than the winter. All this couch time comes at a cost, unfortunately: cold-weather cocooning tends to worsen blood pressure, body-fat percentage and cholesterol, contributing to higher seasonal risks of cardiovascular and overall mortality. Even worse, upping your activity level come spring and summer often fails to completely reverse this trend. There is indeed no time like the present!

So put on your parka and take a hike through your neighbourhood park or green space to embrace what's left of winter and welcome spring. And don't forget to stay active in the great outdoors all year long for the healthiest you yet.

March 28, 2014

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