Welcome to HuffPost Canada’s guide to helping you pick up an easy, everyday ritual that can make your life a bit better, in a small but significant way.
Canadians are stressed out, anxious, and are feeling disconnected from each other. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we’ll share a tiny tip to help you feel good. We’ve got your back.
Today’s habit: Take a winter hike.
What it is: I’m going to admit right off the bat that I’m not an outdoors person. Where some people sign up for running groups, or climb mountains in Nepal, or do yoga in the park, I am home, usually reading, watching Netflix, or crafting (when I’m not running after my toddler and crying when he’s napping because I’m so exhausted).
But I’ve been trying to be better about getting outside, and getting more exercise. And because I live within walking distance of some good trails, I want to go for some winter hikes to get my body moving, and to improve my mood. Because being a parent and having a full-time job is HARD.
For whenever you’re feeling: Like you need a mood boost, like you don’t want to join a gym, like you want an easy exercise that moves your whole body, like you want a change of scenery.
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How it can help: Hiking appeals to me because 1. It’s free, 2. I’m not running, and 3. I’m outside and not checking my phone.
Hiking during the winter is a great way to get vitamin D (sunlight is the most important source of vitamin D), which we often don’t get enough of during the cold months. Among other benefits, vitamin D regulates the absorption of calcium and phosphorous, and facilitates the function of our immune system. It also helps develop our bones and teeth, and helps our bodies resist certain diseases.
Vitamin D also regulates mood and can prevent depression, which is especially important in the winter months when there’s less sunshine, and we’re not going outside as much.
Below are more benefits to winter hiking:
1. It’s good for your brain
The Ontario Parks website notes that hiking can improve creative thinking. In a study published in the journal Plos One in 2012, researchers found that backpackers who went on wilderness hikes scored 50 per cent better on a creativity test after they spent four days outside without the use of electronic devices.
“We show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology,” increased the study participants’ creativity and problem-solving skills, the researchers concluded.
Creative juices flowing aside, being around nature — hearing the birds sing, the crunching of the snow on your boot, the wind in the trees — is known to lower stress levels. A 2018 report revealed that exposure to green space reduces the risk of stress, and Healthy Families B.C. notes that hiking can lead to improved mood and mental wellbeing.
Researchers from Stanford University found that people who walked in natural areas (as opposed to urban areas) for 90 minutes “showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.”
2. Your whole body will thank you
You’re probably going to get one of the best full-body workouts when you’re hiking, and you won’t even feel like you’re exercising. (Unlike when you’re doing a HIIT class. Never again.)
There are so many great physical benefits to hiking, such as:
- Stronger bones and muscles
- Improved sense of balance
- Better heart health
- Toned lower body
- Improved osteoarthritis outcomes
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower body fat
3. It can strengthen your relationships
One of the other reasons why hiking appeals to me is because I can do it with my husband and our kid; it’s a fun activity we can all participate in.
And research shows that going through challenging physical activities can strengthen your relationships.
“Because hiking ranges in difficulty from an extremely challenging climb to a casual way of spending time outside, it’s a great way to strengthen the friendships or bonds you have with your companions,” notes the National Park Service website.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000 found that couples reported feeling more satisfied with their relationships after doing physical challenges or activities together.
“Whether it’s with a younger sibling, neighbourhood friend, or even a grandparent, hiking a trail together can bring you closer and help build a healthy relationship,” says the National Park Service website.
How to get started: The hardest part is probably finding a trail that suits your fitness level. Check out our guide to 25 of the best hiking trails in Canada. Other trail resources include The Great Trail, the best winter trails in B.C. and Ontario, and the best trails in Canada.
If none of these trails are near you, or you find them too challenging, a simple online search of “trail near me” should yield you a few results. Make sure the trail is safe to walk on during the winter.
Next up, gear. Make sure you have good hiking boots that have been broken in, and have good ankle support.
Dress for the weather. Wear lots of layers that you can remove if you overheat. And bring a small backpack where you can pack extra essentials such as healthy snacks, and your phone in case of emergencies (and let’s be honest, for the ’gram).
Keep a water bottle on you to stay hydrated, ’cause when you get thirsty, you’re not going to want to eat the snow.
Finally, Harvard Medical School recommends bringing a map if you’re unfamiliar with the area, and if you’re going alone, to tell someone where you’ll be and when you’re expected to return. But it’s more fun, and more safe, to bring along a friend if you’re venturing into an area you’ve never been to. As your skill level improves, you can start hiking alone.
How it makes us feel: I already know that I feel better physically and mentally when I take a walk outside, and being surrounded by nature makes me feel relaxed and at peace.
And that’s your habit of the day.
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