The Spirit of Health: Learning to Love Winter

The snow here in New England will soon fly, inspiring my French-Canadian wife to dig out the snowshoes, cross-country skis and ice skates.

Last year at the beginning of March when we left with our patients for India, she was torn between the exotic adventure and the snow that was piled up everywhere as white and fresh as the day it came down at Christmas. There’s nothing like a real winter to make a Quebecoise feel at home.

Lake Waushacum, conveniently located in our backyard, will soon sport a two-foot thick white coat, great for snowmobiles, fisherman and cross-country skiers, but not necessarily for skaters. The local kids who like to mix it up after school in a pickup game of hockey ordinarily have an easy-come, easy-go attitude. “No problem,” they say when the snowfall ruins their rink. “It’s gonna’ thaw, rain and freeze so we’ll be back on fresh ice in a week.” Last year they were in for a surprise: they realized they’d have to start shoveling or they’d be playing hockey only in 2004.

From the medical point of view, collective health is threatened by a winter like this because most people begin to believe they are hibernating life forms, shutting down and vegetating indoors for four months, egged on by the gloomy banter between news anchors and meteorologists. Believing misery likes company, they tell you to stay indoors.

With cold weather gear fit for South Beach and not New England, some local folks hardly poke their nose out the door, aggravating the light deprivation created by short days and long nights. The pineal gland, an important modulator of hormonal secretion, is activated to secrete melatonin when the lights go out, helping you fall and stay asleep. As nights lengthen, the pineal senses that it is time to hibernate and not to mate, using melatonin to shut down several hormones associated with the incentive to frolic and court. This primitive reflex is critical in species like deer, whose survival depends on fawning in the spring. For Homo sapiens, it can express itself as wintertime blues. Chronobiologists call this seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a negative shift in mood and temperament during fall and winter brought on by an inappropriate response to light deprivation and other undiscovered factors.

The best prevention for SAD is to expose yourself to bright full-spectrum sunshine for a few hours a day, ideally in the morning. The Victorians called this your “daily constitutional.” If you can’t get outside, or if the depression is severe, full-spectrum artificial lights are not a bad alternative. Some sufferers of SAD think they can get their daily dose just by turning on the lights as they catch the morning news, but SAD is more than light deprivation. It also involves depriving the senses and the organs of action of their due nourishment.

When you go for a walk, the senses, mind, and intellect ingest experiences and are engaged just as much as the arms and legs. There are few activities such as a walk in the woods, where the mind can be calmed and exhilarated simultaneously, the antidotes to both anxiety and depression. Additionally, activation of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems initiates a complex cascade of euphoric neurotransmitters, including serotonin, endorphins, and catecholamines, partially explaining why exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication at relieving depression.

The key to not just surviving winter, but truly enjoying it is to have something about it that you look forward to: snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, walks in the woods or by a river or ocean are simple, accessible and inexpensive. Skiing is a different sport than the one I knew as a kid; rigid boots and short, shaped skies turn beginners into intermediates after barely a day and release bindings make skiing safe. While more expensive, it is eminently safer than tobogganing and sledding which have a high rate of jammed thumbs, knees and backs, yet are undertaken by most folks with hardly a thought.

If you like your winter sports tamer give curling a whirl, or if you have an artistic flare, get into ice sculpture. If you don’t like anything about cold or the great outdoors, plan cozy evenings in front of a fire. Not active enough? Try line or square dancing. Sit down and make a list of all your favorite things to do in winter to pick your winter passions carefully; loving winter may turn into an investment in gear and time.

New England Backyard Getaways

Unless you have the freedom to fly south, find something you look forward to doing on a regular basis. Walking is the simplest, safest, and least expensive as well as fun. First, you need high top, insulated waterproof boots with a good tread. Add polypropylene long underwear and insulated windproof pants, a fleece sweater and a waterproof windbreaker. You’ll need waterproof gloves and hat, a neoprene facemask and even goggles. You can now handle any miserable weather Jack Frost can throw at you and still feel like you are in your living room. Think of the few minutes’ effort it takes to get dressed and undressed as part of your warm-up and cool down periods so it becomes less of an excuse not to go outside.

Next get a topographical map of your town, available in local fishing and hunting shops or maybe even your town hall. Drive eight minutes from your home in one direction. Mark the point on your map. Take a compass and draw a circle around your home with the radius being the point you can drive to in eight minutes. Now locate all the green areas on the map, including parks, woods, rivers, lakes, greenways, bike paths, rail trails, reservoirs, meadows and hills within that circle and that make nice walking areas. Most likely there are dozens of locations within eight minutes from any given point in New England. List and post them on your fridge, giving a copy to your nearby friends and family who might like to join you.

To make your winter day you only need to liberate less than an hour: fifteen minutes to drive back and forth, five minutes for dressing and undressing and 30 minutes to walk. Take binoculars and a guidebook to birds and trees and call it an expedition instead of exercise. Now and then switch to snowshoes.

An inexpensive pair from the discount store works much better than the tennis racquets of yore. Or cross-country skis; the short ones that don’t require wax are a cinch to learn and, like snowshoes, can take you off the trail. Fifty minutes three times a week is all you need to look forward to snow.

Anthropologists marvel that in Inuit there are eleven different words for snow. They’d be surprised to hear that winter aficionados have even more. Here are a few English words for snow that their tape recorders might pick up at a typical New England ski area, in order from more work to more fun: glare, scrabble, washboard, crud, granular, snow cone, slush, corn, hard pack, corduroy, freshies, powder, fluff and champagne. The exhilaration of the feeling of a steel edge cutting through frozen H2O has given rise to myriad expressions to describe the experience. If winter leaves you yawning, you need to learn to experience a similar exhilaration in your own winter way.

The New England dietary traditions for dealing with winter, like pancakes with maple syrup and plenty of butter, sprung from a pioneer people who were working hard outdoors. Rowdies on an arctic oilrig consume 8000-9000 calories of such fare just to keep warm. If you spend time playing outside in the cold, you can enjoy these traditions, too. Just don’t overdo it: you may regret the way your spandex looks on you come spring.

Jay Glaser is medical director at the Lancaster Ayurveda Medical Center in Sterling, MA. If the above suggestions don’t help, you are welcome to join him on a Vedic Safari to India, Feb. 25 – Mar 13. For a free online newsletter and course, send an email to or call 978-422-5044.