How to fend off the wintertime blues and stay active outside

Two people walk with their snowshoes
Snowshoeing is one of the healthiest forms of winter physical activity.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The 6:15 a.m. alarm rings and you drag yourself out of bed. It’s dark. You pour the first cup of coffee to get out the door and into your car for work. It’s freezing — 9 degrees and windy.

The sun rises and sets while you sit in a cube 15 feet away from a window overlooking a strip mall.

Drive home and eat a plate of tater-tot hotdish and green beans. Think about going to the gym but it’s too cold. Stay in and have dessert. A glass of wine, maybe two, to fall asleep. Wake up and repeat.

If this sounds like a relatable wintertime routine, you’re not alone here in the north. However, there are plenty of good ways to avoid the cold weather blues and stay healthy.

One of the best ways to keep riding the high of the summer is by continuing to go outside and stay active as you’re able.

Three experts joined MPR News host Angela Davis to offer their tips for maintaining health in the winter:

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount during the Winter Member Drive to support this resource for everyone.

  • Erika Rivers is the Director of Parks for the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

  • Dr. Ryan Hovis is a licensed psychologist with Headway Emotional Health.

  • Dr. Samuel Hanson Willis practices family medicine at Allina Health. He works out of the Greenway clinic in Minneapolis, which focuses on community health and innovation.

Stay hydrated. And drink less coffee and alcohol. Overindulging in alcohol or food is fairly common in the winter, Hovis said. People will self-medicate, but it’s only a short-term boost that comes with long-term detriment. Substitute the psychoactive beverages for water. Even though thirst is decreased in the cold, hydration is critical for the circulatory system and helps stave off frostbite.

Be mindful of your routines and plan to make them healthier. When it’s frigid out, Hovis said, “people often isolate from others and the cold keeps people confined.” That isolation can be bad for mental health. Willis said he’ll see patients with underlying anxiety or depression that manifests itself more often in winter. Get ahead of the rough routines by planning social events and activities into your schedule.

Surround yourself with active people. Be a good influence on others and seek out companions who will push you to be active, see people and get outdoors.

Keep spending time outside. For one thing, there’s sunlight! And that helps your body produce serotonin. In addition, Rivers said winter is perhaps the best time to be outdoors. “One of the things [people] enjoy about being outdoors in the winter is the peacefulness and quietness, “ she said. There are more animals to see, too.

Get the right gear to be safe and comfortable outdoors. Winter is why humans invented thermal long underwear and warm boots and shoe grips for walking on slippery ground. Get what you need and use it.

Think creatively to get exercise. For people who aren’t able to get outside, there are other ways to stay active in winter. Hovis said a client of his would spend an extra 30 minutes walking around at the grocery store. Others turn to stationary bike setups or simply walk the stairs to maintain strength. For those with disabilities, Rivers said people can get mental health benefits from sitting in front of big picture windows facing nature. Many state parks have these windows, often with a fireplace nearby, she said.

For more, listen to the show on the audio player above and download our Outside in Minnesota app.

This story is part of "Call to Mind," MPR's initiative to foster new conversations around mental health.