7 Ways to Get Nature's Health Benefits During Winter

Just because it’s dark at 5 p.m. doesn’t mean you have to hunker down.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

This winter is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. Not only is it cold and dark (that’s nothing out of the ordinary), but due to the ongoing pandemic, many of us are rarely leaving the house. During a season that can already be depressing, we don’t have easy access to friends-in-the-flesh and indoor activities to keep our spirits high.

That’s not to say we have to stay curled up on the couch, remote in hand. We know that outdoor activities are the safest bet for reducing your likelihood of contracting COVID-19. But when it’s 20 degrees outside and dark at 5 p.m., a walk in the park doesn’t exactly feel like… well, a walk in the park. Here’s the thing, though—research shows that nature is incredibly beneficial to physical and mental health. According to a new study in Ecological Applications, making frequent use of the greenspace around you can help you be happier, more satisfied with life, and less lonely. It can also help mitigate the effects of extreme stress (like, ahem, everything going on right now).

That’s not all. Another recent study, this one in Public Health in Practice, found that taking regular walks in nature helps reduce work-related stress and makes people feel more connected to their sense of purpose. Cindy Frantz, Ph.D., professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio (who was not associated with either of these two studies), explains that the science here is clear. “[Being in nature] helps us get outside of ourselves and connect to something bigger than we are,” she says. “There’s a lot of research about humans’ need to belong and their need to feel like part of something bigger than themselves.”

Unfortunately, getting outside during the winter months is easier said than done. To help you make the most of it, we compiled a list of creative ways to get the mental health benefits of nature… without freezing your toes off.

  1. Schedule your walks—even short ones. Human beings are creatures of habit, and we tend to respond to routines, even ones we create for ourselves. Research has consistently shown routines to be a plus for mental and emotional health, not to mention helping people adopt good-for-you habits in the long-term. “Interacting with nature is healthy for the brain, and that’s going to have a whole host of other consequences such as handling your own stress,” says Marc Berman, Ph.D., director of the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago. Interestingly, Berman says, you don’t even need to enjoy your outdoor walks to get the cognitive benefit. Even people who go out for fifteen minutes in the freezing cold come away with a better attention span and improved memory. “If a path is walkable, just bundle up and do it,” he suggests. Try scheduling several quick walks throughout your day – just think of them as a brain break from work.

  2. Bring along a hot drink (or reward yourself with one). Hot coffee or tea can make anything better, right? Make your walk a little more fun with a hot drink in hand (or, you know… swing by your favorite corner coffee shop on your walk, we won’t judge). Plus, it can literally help warm you up – one study in Transfusion shows that drinking a hot beverage can immediately elevate your body temperature by around 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

  3. Bring a light that’s not your cellphone. Try to avoid bringing your tech on your walk (or at least looking at it while you’re outside). “You want to make sure you’re engaged with the environment,” Berman says. “If you’re walking and texting or talking on the cellphone, we don’t think you’re going to get as much of a benefit.” If you need to bring something to light your way in the evenings, consider a flashlight or headlight (because haven’t we all secretly wanted to rock a headlight?).

  4. Get a bird feeder. For those lucky enough to have a yard or any kind of small outdoor space, consider hanging a birdfeeder outside your window. “We inherently derive pleasure from caring for other people and things,” Frantz explains. “So, if you put out a bird feeder, for example, you get to see the birds, so you’re getting a nature experience even while you’re sitting inside.”

  5. Start a garden—yes, a winter garden! Giving yourself a reason to be outside will be good motivation to make it happen. And while you might think of gardens as being exclusively a warm weather project, that’s actually not the case. Kale, potatoes, onions, and garlic are all examples of vegetables that can be planted and cultivated during colder months. And when you know you have to tend to them it forces you to get outside for a bit.

  6. Become a plant parent. This is a great option for people who can’t get outside because of dangerous bad weather or health issues that limit their mobility. “Having plants in your home or office [can be] beneficial,” Berman says. One 2020 study in HortTechnology found that even three minutes of looking at an indoor plant can substantially reduce psychological stress.

  7. Queue up “Planet Earth” on Netflix. For times when you really need a quick decompress session, even just watching a nature show can be helpful. “For people who are housebound for health reasons or mobility issues, watching nature films can bring a lot of the same benefits,” Frantz says. “Looking out the window can too.”

No matter your strategy, make nature time a priority. Your mental health will thank you. “Nobody really denies that nature is good for us, but a lot of people think, ‘it would be great if we had the money for it,’ ‘it’s really only for rich people,’ or ‘we need to spend our money on something else,’” Berman says. But “nature is a necessity, not an amenity.” All of us need it, and even a little goes a long way.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.