A Nature-Based Cure for the Blues

There are times when all of us, at some point, experience a mild bout of “the blues.” Either it’s circumstantial —there is something worrisome going on in our life— or it’s just the normal ebb and flow of mood. If you’re a woman, it can be hormonal or it can be the result of poor sleep or nutrition. Even mild depression can be downright painful. You feel the ache of listlessness and hopelessness, even when you know logically your life is generally good and comfortable. That’s when it’s especially bad, perhaps because you can’t even find a good reason why you’re feeling down. If there was something you could fix, you’d fix it. Instead, you’re just not happy and you’re not sure why.

I have observed throughout my life that certain activities make me feel better and even cure me of the occasional blues.  One of the activities that seem to be most reliable in making me feel better instantly is exercising outside in a nature place, preferably alone. The mental health benefits of this are not just anecdotal, there are studies that point to the idea that exercising in an outdoor, natural setting is far more effective in improving mood than exercising indoors.

The reason I recommend exercising alone in nature to cure blues is that it’s contemplative, meaning that it allows your mind to wander to how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking—in the moment, as it relates to your environment. You need not worry about what another person is experiencing, how fast they’re walking, or what they think of what you’re telling them. Solitary, contemplative time in nature, allows you to be as present in the moment as you possibly can be, and affords you the space to work through problems and emotions. I have had many instances of creative insight and even a surge of ideas and motivation during solitary hikes, but not so much when I’ve been with others. Maybe the conversation always gets in the way, or maybe my mind is better at surging creativity when I’m giving it the space to do so.

Studies have also concluded that vigorous exercise in bright light (such as sunlight) increases mental well-being by increasing seratonin levels in the brain. These chemicals give us a “feel good” boost, and as an exercise enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing like a good workout to put you in a great mood all day. Combining vigorous exercise with time outdoors in nature is the ultimate natural remedy for a mild cause of the blues.

This is a particularly important point for seasonal depression, or the “winter blues.” When it’s cold and blustery outside, the last thing we want to do is go out there to exercise, but this is precisely when it’s most beneficial, especially on sunny days. Where I live near Denver, Colorado, I am no more than a 30 minute drive from beautiful hiking trails that meander through pine forests and rock formations. Even in winter, after a snowfall, so many people hike that the trails are snow-packed and completely walkable.

In modern culture we spend so much of our time indoors, in front of one screen or another (a computer, a television, a smartphone), and this is doing nothing for our emotional, physical or spiritual health. We need to connect – to our bodies, our spirit, other beings, nature—in order to experience the totality of who we are and our place on earth. Nature has already provided us with the means to being and feeling healthy and happy, we just need to rediscover those gifts.

Are there places near where you live or work that you can exercise in a natural setting? If so, set aside at least three days this week to doing so: to greet the day with a sunrise jog, to contemplate the day with a walk at sunset, and to cap the workweek with a long and physically invigorating amble among the trees, birds and open sky.

 

 

How to Stop Negative Thoughts While Hiking

O'Fallon Trail, fall 2011

We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? We look forward to getting outside all week, because work has been stressful or because we need some peace and quiet, or because we long to smell the freshness of the forest. But when we’re there on the trail, we are miserable because we can’t shut off negative thoughts. We worry about things back home. We berate ourselves for not being more in shape. We are anxious because we imagine a bear or a cougar is just around the corner, or we’re anxious about being alone in the wild. (For tips on dealing with those fears, read my article here).

How can you stop the negative thoughts while hiking, so you can actually enjoy being out in nature more?

I have a few tips that will help you get into the present moment and allow you to relax into what you’re doing. It may take lots of practice and using these tips over and over to begin to be more at ease and in tune with your surroundings, but like with all things that are worth doing, patience and perseverance is key.

Tip #1: Return to your favorite sense

One of the reasons I love going on hikes is for the silence and the sounds of nature. I love listening to the birds, the rustle of the wind through the trees, and the absence of traffic noise, machine noise (except for the occasional airplane), and media noise.

I tend to notice the sounds and the silence the most when I’m hiking – even more than how it smells, how it feels or what it looks like.

What’s your favorite sense on the trail? What do you find yourself noticing more when you’re hiking? Do you remark on the view? Inhale with pleasure the muskiness of the forest floor or the freshness of the wind? Appreciate the peacefulness?

Whenever you catch yourself lost in negative thoughts, return to your favorite sense. Listen to what’s happening around you. See something you haven’t noticed. Really sniff the air. Touch the bark of a tree. This is an easy way to return to the present moment.

Tip #2: Ask yourself, “Am I OK now?

A lot of the anxiety or negativity we feel has to do with something that occurred in the past or something we think will occur in the future.

The problem is, the present moment is all there is. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet. We could spend our entire lives worrying about something that hasn’t yet happened, and in the end realize that our lives were generally quite pleasant or at the least, comfortable. We could pray, hope, dream about a time in the future when we’ll be the person we really want to be, but unless we are making strides today, we will never get there. All we have is the now. If we aren’t living our life the way we want now, we will not be living it the way we want in the future, which is a concept and not reality. All we have is the now.

Whatever it is that’s plaguing your thoughts, ask yourself, “Am I OK now?”

You’re breathing, you’re well enough to hike, you feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. Whatever you’re worried about hasn’t changed this fact about this moment. Chances are, outside of some thought about the past or future, you’ll realize you are perfectly OK now, and if you aren’t, you can make the choice to handle whatever physical discomfort is bogging you down.

Even that discomfort can be made worse (or better) by the story you tell yourself about it.

Tip #3: If you’re with someone, agree to stop talking

When we’re hiking with a friend, it’s often difficult to be fully present to what is. I often hike with friends and family, and these are not always silent hikes. We discuss our goals, gossip, talk about problems, politics, or just rehash the past. At the end of such a hike I realize that I can’t even recall parts of the trail, what it looked like, or how it felt to be there. All I remember was my opinion about the topic about which we were conversing.

These conversations can leave me feeling more pent up and stressed than I was BEFORE the hike, which isn’t good.

If you go hiking with someone, agree to stop talking at least halfway into it. That way, you can practice tip #1 and 2 without the distraction of conversation. It’ll be much easier to do this if you agree ahead of time, before you even start the hike. If you bring it up suddenly during the hike, it might feel insulting to your partner.

When I take groups on hikes through my MeetUp, the agreement that we are not going to talk or socialize is already in place. It allows everyone time and space to be with their own thoughts and experiences. But often people still tell me that they couldn’t stop the negative thoughts. Coming back to the present moment is a practice, not a remedy. You’ll have to keep doing it over and over again, just as in meditation when you return to the breath. In time, it’ll get easier, and you will be able to mostly stay present with what’s around you on the trail. At the very least, you’ll be able to make a choice about it.

After all, you don’t want to long for the woods when you’re at work or at home, and spend all your time thinking about work and home when you’re finally among the trees.

The “Payoff” Scale for Trails Along the Front Range

Isabel Lake, Brainard Lakes Recreation Area scores high on the payoff scale.

I’ve been considering categorizing hikes on a “Payoff Scale” – in other words, what is the payoff in terms of scenery, ambiance, beauty in relationship to the effort (elevation gain and distance)? I know that it’s not very “contemplative” to rate trails like this, but it sure is helpful in managing your time and energy when planning a hike.

The payoff scale would go from 1 to 10, with 1 being too high an effort for too low a payoff, and 10 being low effort for a high payoff. Most hikes are somewhere in between, with some effort expended to see a gorgeous view or experience beauty and solitude.

Lower Crater Lake, James Peak Wilderness

Yesterday I hiked up to the Crater Lakes. This is in the James Peak Wilderness area, near the Moffet Tunnel. It’s 3 miles up to the lower lake, with about a 1,000 foot elevation gain. I rate this hike a “3” on the payoff scale, which is a low rating, because the last mile up to the lower lake is a grueling vertical climb up rocks that are like tall stairs. There are no great views along the way, with most of the hike in thick lodgepole and spruce. Most summer weekends there are a lot of other hikers along the way. Yesterday we counted around 75. There are some meadows and wet areas at the start of the hike, and wildflowers that are most abundant mid-summer, but all that is tempered by the booming noise of the tunnel ventilator fan, which drones on for a half an hour every so often, ruining your peace and quiet, especially within a half mile from the trailhead. The view at the lake shore is average in comparison to other alpine lake views, such as Loch Lake or Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain Park, or Lake Isabel in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Here’s how I would rate some of my favorite hikes in the Front Range area, in terms of the payoff scale:

Isabel Lake – Brainard Lake Recreation Area: 8 (moderate effort with a big payoff view and lovely scenery along the way)

Loch Lake, RMNP: 8 (moderate effort with elevation gain, 3 miles to lake, incredible views, waterfalls and wildlife along the way)

Fraser Trail to Eldorado State Park, Eldorado Springs: 10 (low effort, short hike, wonderful scenery, especially in the canyon looking at the rock walls)

Goskawk Ridge Trail, Eldorado Springs: 7 (moderate effort, lots of variety of scenery and vegetation)

Ranger Trail or Gregory Canyon to the top of Green Mountain, Boulder: 6 (strenuous effort, 360 degree views at top, but not as scenic on the way up as other trails)

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder: 10 (only half hour or less to the top, with spectacular views all the way around, and in mid-summer some wildflowers along the way)

Mt. Evan Wilderness State Wildlife Area, Lost Lake or Captain Mountain Trail: 8

Deer Mountain, RMNP: 9 (the views along the way and at the top are worth the moderate effort up the hill)

How would you rate your favorite and not so favorite hikes along the Front Range on this “payoff scale”? Is there a hike with little to medium effort that has huge payoffs? Or one with a lot of effort and not much payoff? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Improve Your Experience – Set an Intention

Intentions are powerful forces for the psyche. Setting an intention is like putting out a message into the Universe announcing your arrival at a certain point in time and space, instead of following the whims of randomness. When you set an intention, you participate in the Law of Attraction because you have already visualized the outcome of what you want, although you may not always know the path you’re going to take to get there. If you’d like to have a more soulful experience in nature, you will want to set an intention before you begin your hike. Setting an intention at the beginning can improve your experience.

Setting an intention before a hike can enable you to connect deeper to your soul, notice signs from nature, get answers to personal questions (inner-knowing) and expand your awareness. You can set a casual intention, such as, “I intend to relax fully and not dwell on my usual issues during the next hour.” Or, you can have a more serious, deeper intention that requires more of an awareness and mindfulness, such as, “I intend to open up to any messages, omens and signs from nature to answer a question that’s been on my mind for a while.”

I’m constantly amazed at the difference it makes to go hiking without an intention—just to socialize or get some exercise, for example—and to go with an intention. I have gone on contemplative hikes where I have had amazing and magical experiences, where animals seemed to communicate with me either directly or in an extrasensory way, or I’ve seen mysterious things, or have received signs that answered a personal question that was plaguing me.

Here’s how to set an intention for a contemplative hike:

  1. Get a feel for what you need in the moment. Is there a question that’s on your mind? A worry? Are you wanting a deeper connection to soul? Do you want to celebrate a transition in your life? Do you want to really notice something new on the trail that you haven’t experienced before? Think about what is compelling you in this moment in time.
  2. Form an intention around your desire and need by saying the sentence, out loud, before you begin the hike. “I intend to stay open to any omens and signs around the question or why I’ve been feeling _____ lately.” It’s important to say it out loud, to direct it at the trees, the sky, the mountains and meadows, and to hear yourself stating the intention. It doesn’t have to be loud so that others can hear. As long as YOU can hear yourself proclaim it.
  3. Ask the land, the trees, the animals, the plants to support your intention and to help you with it. Ask out loud. “Mountain, please send your positive energy my way and help me with my intention.”
  4. Give yourself a brief moment of acknowledgement and silence to allow the intention to sink in. Stand for a minute or so, eyes open or closed, feeling the ground beneath your feet and the sky above your body. Take a deep breath.
  5. As you embark on your hike, try to keep the intention in the back of your mind, but don’t dwell on it. You’ve put the energy “out there,” so now allow yourself to receive. Feel what the energy of receiving is like, versus asking or proclaiming. Trust that you will get the answer you seek, or the experience you need.

Most likely the experience you want won’t look quite like you expect. It’s always fascinating to see what surprises, both good and bad, wait around the corner, both on the trail and in life. The unexpected, the mysterious, and the challenging are all teaching moments from the soul.

3 Mindful Ways to Stop Toxic Thoughts

We’ve all had those days, haven’t we? Something bad happens, someone says something insensitive, and suddenly our good mood is gone. Someone offends us and we feel threatened, angry and resentful. It isn’t long before the toxic thoughts (“what a jerk!”) turn into toxic, body-felt emotions: headache, heartburn, tight shoulders and stomach, nausea and even lethargy. If it’s particularly toxic, we can’t even sleep well at night.

How can you stop those toxic thoughts that are ruining your day? First and foremost, it’s important to take some time and change your environment. Take a “mental health” break from your routine and get out in nature for some exercise. Go on a trail where you feel at home and welcomed by the landscape. Studies like the one from the UK’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry have shown that exercise outdoors is better for your mental wellbeing than exercising, say, indoors at the gym.

In addition to the healthful exercise you’re getting hiking in nature, you can also try the following three different techniques to stop toxic thoughts and therefore reduce the negative emotional effect they have on your mind and body. I’ve tried all three of these consistently and found that they’re more effective than anything else—even talking with a friend—in improving my mood. Here they are:

Technique #1: Try a “Purging” Style of Meditation
This is the meditation activity I describe in my book, “Contemplative Hiking,” for the Spring Equinox energy cleansing ritual in nature. It involves meditating and breathing deeply from the belly, and imagining the toxic, black cloud of negative emotions and thoughts being pulled up from your core to your lungs and exhaled through the breath. With each cleansing breath, see your exhalation as first black, then progressing to a gray smoke and eventually coming out completely clear. You are imagining, as you meditate and breathe, that you are inhaling clean, fresh, healing breath and exhaling the negativity, anger, sadness, resentment and despair out into the atmosphere, where the trees and grasses will absorb it and transform it into clean air again.

Do this as long as you feel tense and raw. You will soon start to feel more relaxed and “detoxified.”

Technique #2: Perform EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) on Yourself

EFT is a form of alternative psychotherapy developed by Gary Craig that uses acupressure (meridian) points on the body while focusing on a specific limiting belief, thought, or bad memory. Whether this technique is actually effective because it’s creating a mind/body connection, it’s a placebo or because it distracts you from your negative thoughts, it doesn’t matter if the end result is that you FEEL better after you do it.

I’ve tried this technique at various times and have sensed a lessening of toxic thoughts and emotions as a result. It’s particularly effective to do it while sitting on a rock under a tree, in nature, where it’s quiet and private.

Here’s a video demonstrating how to do EFT:

For toxic thoughts, you might say something like this to yourself: “Even though I feel angry and distracted right now because ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

“Even though that person makes me feel ______, I deeply and completely accept myself.”

You repeat this as often as it takes for you to feel more relaxed and de-toxified from the negative thoughts and emotions.

Technique #3: Turn Resentment Into Gratitude

One of the secrets of “The Secret” and attracting abundance to our life is the idea that we should feel gratitude every single day for everything that we have and are experiencing, whether it’s something that we perceive as being “good” or “bad.” The very act of turning a negative event on its head and seeing it as a positive actually lessens the stress caused by the event.

For example, say that you wrecked your car and now you have to take an entire day off of work to deal with the insurance company and take your car to the body shop. You are having toxic thoughts about the situation. You’re angry at the person who hit you. You’re pissed about the $500 deductible you’re going to have to pay to fix your car. You’re even more annoyed at the day you have to take off from work.

How can this event be turned into gratitude and turned on its head? It’s not as difficult as you may think.

You can say to yourself that you’re grateful that you even HAVE a car. You’re grateful that you have a great job that you enjoy so much that you don’t like being away from it. You’re grateful to be employed during a recession. You’re grateful that you’re healthy and unharmed from the accident. You’re grateful that your partner or child weren’t in the car at the time of the accident. You’re grateful to have insurance and that there are talented and hard-working people who can fix your car to look even better than it did before the accident. You’re grateful for the opportunity to stop, take stock, and appreciate your life and health.

With each statement of gratitude, you’ll realize that perhaps the bad thing that happened to you isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a friendly reminder of how GOOD you actually have it. Is that possible? Play around with these questions and see for yourself.

Taking time to apply one or all of these three techniques when you’re feeling stressed, depressed or angry can do wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing, especially when combined with time alone in nature.

Getting Your Groove Back with a Change of Scenery

Lovell Gulch view
View west from Lovell Gulch Trail

Featured hike: Lovell Gulch, Woodland Park (near Colorado Springs)

Directions: From the U.S. 24/Cimarron exit, Number 141, on Interstate 25, take U.S. 24 west 17.2 miles to Woodland Park. Turn right on Baldwin Street (3rd light). Proceed 2.1 miles, passing the high school campus. Baldwin Street becomes Rampart Range Road. You’ll see the City of Woodland Park maintenance buildings on your left. Turn onto the street directly before the buildings and park on the south side of the buildings along the fence. You’ll see the trailhead (NFS trail) directly to the west.

Have you been feeling uninspired, unmotivated, downright burned out lately?

Many of us get stuck in a rut in both our work and personal lives and we don’t even know it. We slog through our workdays, the weekends feel too short, and before we know it we’ve lost our groove and our joi de vivre, our joy of living. We don’t care about the things we used to care about. We get snippy and look to blame someone—usually those closest to us—for our troubles. We think our spouses aren’t paying enough attention to us. Our kids are too needy. Our bosses too demanding and our friends too distant. We suspect we might be a little depressed, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it, except that we feel stuck in some kind of rut.

All of this could be symptomatic of what Joan Borysenko calls burnout in her book, Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive. One of the stages of burnout is feeling miserable, but not knowing why. Borysenko advises a change of scenery and a time out of your life to experience some fun and adventure.

Taking the time to sort through what you’re feeling is hard to do in familiar surroundings when you’re moving at the speed of light, out of touch with your body and emotions. The ringing phone, ceaseless e-mails, household chores, work issues, and all your relationships are distractions.

Feeling burn out is a sign that you need time away to do something new and rejuvenating to your mind and body. If you’re a hiker and enjoy being out in nature, it’s a good time to find a trail in a new location—somewhere you’ve always wanted to go or a place with new scenery and landscapes. When even hiking doesn’t sound all that fun any more, you know it’s time to get out of your usual rut and go somewhere unfamiliar.

Get out the map of Colorado (or the state you live in) and start looking at it. What are some places you’ve never been, trails you’ve never experienced? Perhaps there’s a part of the state you’ve always been curious about. You don’t need to drive too far. In my case, I’d never hiked around Pikes Peak. I’ve visited Colorado Springs many times, but had never gone hiking anywhere besides the Garden of the Gods. My husband and I bought a topo map and hiking guide to Colorado Springs and took to the road on a day off from work.

Lovell Gulch, a 5.5 mile loop that winds through the foothills and woods west of Pikes Peak near Woodland Park, looked like a good bet for a day hike. The photo in the guide book showed a view of an expanse of forested valley leading up to the north face of Pikes Peak.

View of Pikes Peak North Face
Pikes Peak from Lovell Gulch Trail

The trail starts in a residential area of Woodland Park, so at first it doesn’t feel very secluded or wild. On the day we went, February 21, the trail was squishy with mud where it was sunny, and where it was shaded from the ponderosas the trail was still packed with snow and ice. After crossing a dirt road and confusing us with forks that led us around the woods and back on itself, the trail finally congealed and began a gradual climb around the southwest of a slope. The views opened up about 1.5 miles into the hike and continued past the beginning of the 3.75 mile loop part of the Lovell Trail. To the west were the distant and snow-covered Buffalo Peaks. To the southeast was Pikes Peak in all its glory. To the south, the lower peaks that wind their way down toward Pueblo.

The vistas were new to us and it was a refreshing change of pace from our usual Front Range hikes. Despite it being a government holiday, there weren’t many people on the trail. We only passed three other hikers the entire 2-1/2 hour trek. The sun was shining brightly and the wind had a chill to it. I found myself getting introspective about how my life and career as a graphic designer has changed in the last 15 years. I was still a designer (and perhaps will always be) but I was also an ecopsychologist and author. Design itself had morphed. I used to do print design but now am doing just as much web design. My tools had changed from fax machine to PDFs and from Dreamweaver to WordPress, from keyboards to hiking boots. But here I was, still working at the same desk, trying to do new things in old environments. No wonder I was feeling stuck!

Away from the computer and away from technology for a few hours, I had an inspiration. I would remove my old, gigantic desk and replacing it with a smaller, more contemporary one. I would clear out the ghosts of the past by literally clearing out my work space and replacing it with something cleaner and fresher. I would move my desk closer to the window. I would open up my work space, and in doing so, maybe I’d open up some possibilities.

After the hike we took at break at the Yerba Mate café in Manitou Springs and then took the last tour of the Cave of the Winds before having some Thai food in town and heading home to Denver. Although the hike was planned, everything else was spontaneous. I felt like my old, adventuresome self again.

A one-day excursion may not cure you of your burnout. Joan Boryshenko suggests scheduling more time away, like at a retreat. If you like nature, hiking, yoga and meditation, I recommend you attend my 3 day “Mindfulness in Nature” retreat this summer. You’ll have an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, get some nourishing food and exercise, and meet some interesting people. And maybe, just  maybe, it’ll be exactly what you need to get your groove back.

Body Mindfulness While Hiking

monarch lake
Monarch Lake, RMNP, January 2011

What kind of hiker are you? Do you plan your hike in advance and know that you want to reach a point on the map, a certain mileage, perhaps hike for a certain amount of time, and you push ahead and achieve your goal regardless of how your body is feeling?

Or are you the kind of hiker who plans an outing based on what you want to see on the trail or how busy or quiet it’ll be, then hike for as long as you start to feel a bit tired, then return to the trailhead with enough energy to spare?

In other words, how mindful are you of your body? Can you tell when your energy tank is half-full, so have just about enough stamina to hike safely back to your car? Or do you become so distracted by the company you’re keeping, by your goal and by the scenery that you exhaust yourself and don’t realize it until it’s too late?

Body mindfulness is a skill that can be ignored or cultivated. Some people aren’t aware of their body most of the time. During a typical day, they slouch, they sit stiffly at their computer all day, they forget to eat regular meals and by the evening they barely have enough energy to hold a conversation, and their body is moaning in agony over bad posture and lack of movement. They don’t get enough sleep because they ignore their sleepiness. These people get sick often—more often then they’d like, but these are also the people who pop pills and try to work through their cold or flu, which ends up making them sicker, longer.

People with more body mindfulness have a relationship with their body that can be described as intimate and aware. They can tell when they need to go to bed early, when they need to take a day off from exercise, or, while hiking, when to turn around on a trail before they get so tired they risk injury. They are the ones who know when to quit, who know when to take a break and who don’t often get sick. So they’re happier and more productive in life.

There are advantages to having body mindfulness, or listening to what your body needs and making sure you provide it. According to the book, The Power of Full Engagement, you can increase your work productivity exponentially simply by following certain rules about how the body and mind function best: you work uninterrupted for about 90 minutes, and take at least 15 minute breaks where you completely disengage, mentally and physically, from your task. The brain has a certain algorhythm and pattern. It can focus on a task effectively for about 60-90 minutes at a time before it starts to wander off-task. You can notice this next time you’ve been working at something for a certain amount of time and then begin to daydream…check your email…surf the internet. Your brain (and body) is trying to tell you something. It’s trying to tell you that it needs a break. If you don’t take a break on purpose, you’ll probably “check out” mentally anyway. And it’ll take you longer to get back on-task.

When it comes to hiking and any physical activity, knowing your body and paying attention to what it’s telling you can keep you from getting injured. Notice how wobbly your legs get after a really, really long hike. How likely are you to sprain your ankle or trip over a tree root if your legs are shaking with exhaustion coming off a mountain? It’s better to shorten your hike and stay strong for the trek back. Knowing your limits can also help you survive: you know you can’t handle an 15-mile hike at a 3-mile per hour pace and you’ll get left behind and lost (like what happened to Ken Killip in the nonfiction book Deep Survival). Or you know you have vertigo on steep sections and you might slip and fall to your death, so you avoid the more precarious route and stick to the longer loop where you’ll be safer.

The next time you’re on a hike of any length, take time to check in with your body before, during and after the hike. How do you feel before embarking? Is your energy level high or low? Can you handle the hike you planned? Will you need to take more frequent breaks or just shorten the distance? Is there soreness or tension that you’re holding in your body at any point in the hike, and does it intensify or disappear as you go? Will the kink in your muscle get better or worse with exercise?

I know a few things about my body. Sometimes I feel the most tired at the start of a hike and get better as I warm up. It takes exactly 20 minutes for my fingers and toes to warm up in winter from a cardio activity. I can set my watch to it! I know what a 2-hour hike feels like to my body as compared to a 4-hour hike, and I can say how long I’ve been hiking without even glancing at my watch. I know I will feel 200% better if I get exercise than if I don’t, so even if I’m feeling lazy on the drive up to the trailhead, I persevere.

I went snowshoeing with some friends this winter on a quiet, 5-mile trail around Monarch Lake in western Rocky Mountain National Park. There was at least three feet of snow on the trail in spots, but fortunately many people had blazed the trail ahead of us the previous weekend and not only was the trail obvious through the woods, the snow was packed enough to offer relative stability. Still, it was much more strenuous than summer hiking, and the altitude intensified the workout. About an hour into the adventure, I announced that I would be turning around in 30 minutes, our goal of reaching a point on the trail be damned. My friend was a bit surprised—maybe disappointed—because she was feeling great at that moment. We did end up turning around at the 90 minute point, and within 15 minutes of returning to our cars my friend admitted that she was glad we did, because she barely had enough energy left to get back and couldn’t have handled another mile.

In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales concludes his study with a few laws of survival, one of which is “be humble.” Know that just because you’re good at one thing (bicycling) doesn’t make you good at other things (snowshoeing). Just because you ran a half marathon last year doesn’t mean you can handle a 15-mile backpack this weekend. The key is body mindfulness. Check in with your body, know how to predict your capabilities and energy level, and make decisions accordingly. It can save your life.

6 Tips for Winter Health and Well-being

Reprinted with kind permission from Donna, who lives in the Netherlands and writes a blog at Natural-Habits.net

Winter has come early to us here in the Netherlands. I am looking out of my window at a world covered with a blanket of snow. The ducks who make their home on the canal that runs by my home now find it too cold to sit on the shores. Instead they have taken to the water semi-permanently. I’ve seen a few of them with their head under wing, snoozing away, as they’re gently pushed downstream by the current.

Snow and Ice on the SingelSnow and ice cover the canal near my building. The ducks only have a small patch of free surface water to hang out on!

Even though I have a nice warm apartment to shelter me as the birds swim by, I’m beginning to envy them. They are naturally far better equipped for dealing the weather. They know what to do when the temperature drops below freezing.

For me, the Summer-induced, rose-tinted winter amnesia is slipping away and I am remembering that back in January and February we had a  lot of sub-zero temperatures and a lot of snow. I suffered immensely from it, yearning for warmer climes and often ending up feeling cold, sick, and miserable as the cold days went by.

“I’m not built for Winter!”

When you see how much we suffer from the cold, we’re reminded that our species wasn’t built to thrive this far north of the equator. Humans evolved in the tropics and only much later did they make their way further afield, into the cooler corners of the earth.

We know that we’re out of our natural evolutionary climate: We need to wrap up against the elements. Going in and out of heated homes and offices into freezing temperatures stresses our skin, causing cracked lips, chapped skin and dry hair. We’re also more likely to succumb to viruses that take advantage of our weakened immune systems as a result of having to deal with the physical stress of living in a changeable and inhospitable climate. As if that wasn’t annoying enough, our moods can also decline due to the lack of vitamin D our bodies make from the sun’s rays. This is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

But we’re up here in the chilly bits of the planet nonetheless, and a lot of us aren’t going anywhere, at least not for a while anyway!

And yet despite having already lived through many cold winters, practising how to keep healthy and happy throughout the cooler months becomes a challenge for many, myself included. With this in mind, I decided to put this little list together to help bring focus and remind us to cultivate good habits that will help us feel our best all winter long.

How to make it through the winter

Keep busy and active. A friend of mine says that it’s no good sitting in one place for too long and she’s right. I’m terrible for sitting still in one place when I’m busy with something. It’s not before too long that I start to feel physically slow and stiff. It’s important to make sure to get up from your desk or the sofa regularly to get the limbs moving and the blood flowing. I also like to do a yoga practise daily which helps me stay supple. I’m not much for going out running when it’s cold, so yoga makes an excellent supplement /substitute to my usual exercise routine.

Go outside each day. Take the time to appreciate nature in wintertime and all the wonders it has to offer. It’s all too easy to shut yourself away indoors and only venture out when necessary. Take advantage of a time when the weather isn’t so harsh to go for a walk in the park and take in your surroundings. Observe and note how plants and animals deal with the wintertime. It’s fascinating. Not only will this help strengthen your connection with nature, you’ll also be getting a dose of that much needed vitamin D.

Eat lots of fresh fruit and veggies (make soup!). We should be doing this all year around, but now is the most important time to get the good stuff in to bolster our immune systems. My favourite thing to do when it’s cold outside is to make soup – and lots of it! A big pot ready on the stove offers days worth of inside-out warming pleasure, and it’s a nice treat for visitors who are coming in from the elements too.

Be aware of the effects of central heating. Being indoors in artificially heated rooms can have a detrimental effect on your health and wellbeing too. Central heating dries the air out which in turn dries us out! Try placing a small container of water on or near your radiators. The water will need replenishing every few days, but this does help. Also, open the window and let a bit of fresh air in for a little bit each day. That way you won’t dessicate yourself!

Consider taking supplements. Despite being vehemently against pills and supplements in any shape or form the rest of the year, this is the only time where I feel I might have to concede and take a supplement or two for my own good. With the lack of sun exposure, you’ve got to do what you can to avoid succumbing to symptoms of Seasonal Affect Disorder. Being stuck here in short daylight hours and inhospitable conditions takes its toll. Before you know it you’re on the slippery road to glumness, misery and depression. I know from experience that it can be hard to pull yourself up to so much as care about any of the points above. A vitamin D supplement can really help to stave off the onset.

The Winter Vacation. If you are someone like myself who really suffers through the winter, consider swapping your Summer vacation for a Winter one. Head to some part of the world where it’s warm and sunny and enjoy two weeks soaking up the sun. We did this earlier in the year and I would go so far as to say it saved my life! Okay, well, maybe not that far. But coming from -8 to +25 Celsius within a matter of hours was quite wonderful. During our short stay in the tropics, I drank up the sunshine and appreciated its all its benefits. My body knew it had come home.

Opting out of winter entirely

Some birds and animals have the right idea. Instead of toughing it out in a climate too cold for them they migrate to another part of the world where the weather is milder and food more abundant. There are many people who actually do something similar, spending months at a time in places like Costa Rica, Thailand and Hawaii. This is more than a holiday — you essentially live at your destination for an extended period.

For the last couple of years I’ve been giving serious thought about joining this flock of migratory humans. If opting out of winter entirely sounds like something you’re interested in for the long term, I recommend you take a look at this course called How to Move to a Tropical Paradise. I have taken this course myself and I’m happy to say that it’s full of useful practical information directly from someone who actually lives this lifestyle. It removes a lot of the worries and daunting from this wonderful notion of being able to migrate your way out of the winter blues.

How do you do manage?

For those of us who are stuck here in the freezing north for the time being, I want to ask how you handle the colder months? Perhaps you have a tip or two to add to this list and if so, I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a happy winter!