Winterize your brain: mind over matter

Winterize your brain: mind over matter

Enjoying winter can be as simple as mind over matter. We spoke with cold-weather enthusiasts and health experts to learn their tricks and approaches.

Understanding seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Eighty per cent of Canadians suffer from the "winter blues," a mild form of seasonal depression, explains Dr. Hani Iskandar, medical chief at the Douglas Institute.

In sports they say mental preparation is as important as physical training. It's the same for winter: to enjoy it, we must adapt our approach to this extraordinary season.

- Jennifer Heil, Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing

It's normal: as the days shorten, we don't go outside as much, thereby reducing our exposure to sunlight. Exposure to light is directly related to the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle. As a result we feel more tired, our energy levels decrease and we feel an uncontrollable urge to eat more carbohydrates.

As the span of daylight shortens, it requires effort to get enough natural light each day. Dr. Iskandar's golden rule recommends "at least 30 to 45 minutes of sun exposure, ideally in the morning or at noon."

A simple walk to work or stroll during lunch has beneficial effects and easily fits into a daily routine. On days when going outside is impossible, Dr. Iskandar suggests using a light therapy lamp.

Focus on foods that boost health

Accomplished Olympian athlete Jennifer Heil had to learn to enjoy winter even in the most extreme conditions. Her trick to feeling the most energetic during the cold season? "My advice would be to eat well and take supplements such as vitamin D and probiotics, which give us a better resistance." Do you know about goji berries and manuka honey? Learn more about them and other ways to get more energy.

Practice mindfulness

Scientific research shows that our mood benefits from focusing on the positive.

"Careful," warns Dr. Marilyn Fitzpatrick, professor of counselling psychology at McGill University, "it's not about imposing positive imaginary thoughts, but rather learning to recognize and enjoy the good things that are happening around us."

The most important aspect of this approach is to develop an awareness of what's happening now in the moment, or, what Dr. Fitzpatrick refers to as "mindfulness."

For example, if you take a walk outside, you can tell yourself right away that your nose is cold and then become stuck with this negative thought. On the other hand, you can focus on observing the pleasant aspects of your walk and guide your mind to them: feeling the warmth of your hands in your mitts, the sky's beauty, the sight of children playing in the snow. As with physical activity, the more you practice positive thinking, the more it becomes a habit.

Move, move, move!

It's important to remember that physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle balance. Being active is especially important during the winter when we feel our energy and mood slide in a downward spiral. We need to activate the body at least 30 minutes each day, ideally in sunlight. For fun activity ideas, read our experts' suggestions to explore winter.

Jennifer Heil, Olympic medalist in freestyle skiing

"I come from Alberta and ever since I was young, I've always adored skating on the long frozen lakes at the foot of the Rockies. For safety, we skate with an axe and a rope because these lakes are sometimes 10 to 15 km long. That explains why I'm a good skater, but not very good on braking. Closer to home, I fell in love with skate-skiing. Cross-country skiing makes me appreciate even the coldest days and it is always so quiet in the woods!"

Nathalie Lambert, Olympic champion in short track speed skating

"For adventurers whose eyes are not bothered by the cold, I suggest snowkiting. It's like water skiing, but on a (frozen) lake or matted snowfields, and you're pulled by a large kite. For a family outing, I like outdoor recreation centre activities: you can do everything from skiing to snowshoeing to sledding. You can spend all day trying a variety of activities."

Dr. Marilyn Fitzpatrick, professor of counselling psychology at McGill University

"I'm more traditional: I like going out for walks in the city during the week and in the countryside on weekends. I can go up to an hour or two, and I combine with a mindfulness practice. It took me a doctorate to get there: it's very simple, but very effective!"

Dr. Hani Iskandar, medical chief at the Douglas Institute and professor in the department of psychiatry, McGill University

"We don't always think of it, but dancing is a wonderful exercise that combines physical activity with having fun. It diverts our mind from negative thoughts; the positive effects on mood are remarkable."

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