Why Run/Run-Walk Outside in the Winter

Why Run/Run-Walk Outside in the Winter

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
January 12, 2024

The great (albeit, cold) outdoors improves mood, sleep, health, mental toughness, etc.  

Cold, wind, rain, snow. Darkness, slick surfaces. A warm, cozy couch, or even a temperature-regulated gym that doesn’t require you to think about your layers and the traction on your shoes. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to stay indoors in the winter. But there are even more reasons to get outside.

While heading to an indoor treadmill is better than not doing anything at all, doing your running and run-walking outside through winter gives you massive, meaningful benefits beyond the physical.

Improve Your Mood

An estimated 10 million Americans experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and that number only includes those who have been properly diagnosed by a medical professional. According to the National Institute of Health, this form of depression comes on for most in late fall or early winter, and lasts for 4-5 months of the year.

Symptoms of depression brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder include feelings of hopelessness or pessimism, irritability, frustration, restlessness, loss of pleasure or interest in activities, etc. For a full list of symptoms, click here.

According to studies, people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder due to low serotonin levels, low Vitamin D, and altered melatonin levels because of shorter, dreary days of winter.

The first two—low serotonin and low Vitamin D, can be aided and improved by exposing ourselves to sunlight. The National Institute of Health reports that, “sunlight affects levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels.” And, according to Healthline, “When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes Vitamin D from cholesterol.”

Even in cloudy, rainy or snowy conditions, we are still exposed to UV rays and Vitamin D—in the same way that you can get a sunburn when the sun isn’t shining.

Regarding melatonin, the hormone that affects circadian rhythms and helps you sleep, exposing yourself to natural daylight—even muted daylight (cloudiness, for instance)—can increase levels. (Other ways to increase melatonin include eating foods like eggs, fish, cherries, milk and nuts; turning off screens two hours before bed; etc.)

Even if you don’t think you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, heading outside for your winter runs and run-walks can improve your mood.

Fresh, Cold Air is Good for You

Fresh air has a multitude of health benefits, including but not limited to: boosting immune function, improving heart health, cleaning your lungs, increasing energy, improving focus, and improving sleep.

By “fresh” I mean fresh, not the air circulating inside a gym or your basement, but the air in the good-old outdoors…even if it’s freezing cold air.

Fresh, cold air has been linked to increased endorphins and cortisol levels, which are both tied to improved mood.

And multiple studies have proven the benefits of nature therapy, where even a walk in a neighborhood, paying attention to trees, birds, and yes, even rain, snow, and clouds, benefits the immune system and calms the nervous system.

A 2023 study published by the National Institute of Health found that those exposed to simple nature therapy reported “…effectiveness, satisfaction, and improvements on the mood and soul level, well-being, contact with other people, and coping with problems and ill-health…”

Mental and Physical Toughness Pays Off

Bundling up in warm, protective clothes and heading outside in winter weather allows you to laugh in the face of adversity, which boosts both your physical—and mental—strength.

Running or run-walking in a headwind, for instance, improves physical strength with natural resistance. Getting your workout done on a snowy surface gives you the added benefit of strengthening all your tiny stabilizer muscles not otherwise tapped into on a smooth surface. (Consider shortening your workout to allow your body to adjust to soft surfaces like snow and sand.)

And refusing to let winter weather determine your fate—meaning, not letting the cold, wind, rain, etc. force you to stay indoors—makes you in charge of your destiny on a daily basis…and there’s great mental/emotional benefits in that.

Completing even a short walk-run in winter weather can make you feel strong, like you can handle anything life throws at you. And as the meditation App Headspace reports, “With a strong, resilient mind, we can better manage our thoughts, emotions, and energy when we’re faced with stress or challenging situations.”

All this is to say, give it a go. Bundle up, head outdoors. Even if you run/run-walk might be shorter than an indoor workout you’d be able to do unbothered by rain in your face or wind coming at you from seemingly every direction, you’ll be better for it.

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