The Benefits of the Outdoors: How Going Outside Can Fend Off Winter Blues

29 January, 2016

Sunshine: our year-round fickle friend.

In the summer, the sun shines bright and hard, threatening our skin with burns and disease. In the winter, the sun evades us, leaving our minds unhappy and restless.

But, no matter your personal relationship with the sun, you need it. The sun is the best source we have to take in vitamin D, which is essential to living a happy, healthy life.

In the summer, you can fend off the sun using long sleeves and sunscreen, but getting more sun when temperatures are frigid and clouds pervade is much more difficult.

Regardless, it’s a challenge anyone who lives through regular winters must accept. Getting outside and soaking up some of that precious vitamin D is the biggest defense you have against the winter blues.

If you’ve been feeling a little down these last few months, you’re not alone. Roughly 10 million Americans suffer from winter depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Another 10 to 20 percent of the population may have mild SAD.

The good news is the sun is always out there, even if it’s sometimes hard to reach. Use this advice to get your daily vitamin D and discover how the outdoors that you’re so hesitant to brave are the best cure for your winter blues.

What’s So Great About Going Outside, Anyways?

Have you ever thought about how much your daily activities change between summer and winter? In the summer, you inadvertently get sunshine all the time. You go for a morning jog and evening stroll, you eat lunch outside, you spend your weekends basking in the sunshine at barbecues.

During winter, that all changes. You work out inside a dimly lit gym, you eat lunch in shabby break rooms, you spend your weekends in dark movie theaters. Although your body only needs 15 to 20 minutes of direct sunshine a day to stay chipper, you can easily end up getting zero because of the late sunrises and early sunsets.

Sound familiar?

The problem with never getting outside in the winter is that your skin doesn’t get any UV rays. UV rays get a bad rap in the summer because they can be harmful if your skin is exposed for too long, however, you need them to produce vitamin D.

UV rays get absorbed by your skin and retinas, and your body and brain use them to promote vitamin D and serotonin production.

The key word here is actually serotonin. Serotonin is a happy chemical in our brains that makes us feel significant and important. When serotonin levels are low, loneliness and depression start to creep in. So that sad, lonely feeling you have in the dead of winter can be blamed on absent serotonin.

One of the best ways to increase serotonin production is to get some vitamin D, and that’s why going outside is so important, even when it’s cold.

Besides giving our brains a serotonin boost, having sufficient levels of vitamin D has also been shown to help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, and it may slow the aging process.

All of that from just 20 minutes of sunshine a day!

How to Get Outside During Winter

Knowing how to keep from getting SAD is one thing, actually doing it is another. It’s hard to get outside during the winter months when all you want to do is curl up next to a warm fire, but it isn’t impossible.

Remember, you only need about 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight a day to get your daily dose of vitamin D, plus going outside can have numerous other positive effects on the mind and body that will make winter even better. Give these tricks a try and wave good-bye to those winter blues.

1. Simply, Do It!

Fifteen minutes isn’t that hard to swing if you really try. Park farther away from your office or grocery store so it takes an extra few minutes to get inside, sip your morning coffee on the porch, go for a walk (and bring your pup, animals need vitamin D too!), visit an outdoor mall on the weekend.

To help you keep track of the vitamin D you need, you can use a smartphone app like D Minder Pro. It will help you track how much vitamin D you need, and how much you’re getting, so you know if you need to take an extra walk around the block to hit your mark.

2. Exercise Outside

Getting a workout outside does double duty for your happiness levels. Not only can you boost serotonin from vitamin D intake, you can release endorphins, another happy chemical in your brain that is released during exercise.

Endorphins help alleviate anxiety and depression. They’re responsible for that euphoric “runner’s high” and can help reduce your perception of pain. Bundle up and move your running or cycling routine outside, or take a trip to the mountains and give snowshoeing a try.

Endorphins are also released when we laugh, so if you’re not up for a hardcore workout, you can still get a boost by listening to a comedy record and going out for a walk around the neighborhood.

3. Bundle Up

Numerous studies have shown that being cold makes us feel lonely and unhappy, which is the last thing we need during the winter months.

Motivate yourself to go outside by splurging on some great winter gear. Find practical items that have many uses, like cozy long johns and smart-touch gloves that let you use your smartphone while keeping your fingers toasty.

Go big on a spendier item that really excites you, like a nice winter coat or snow boots. You’ll be more motivated to go outside so you can show off your new threads.

4. Take Up a New Hobby

Like many of these tips, learning something new works two fold. Dopamine, another happy chemical in the brain, is linked to setting and achieving goals. When you accomplish something you set out to do, you get a flood of good feelings, which you can harness and use to accomplish something else.

Combine this drive to achieve with the outdoors during winter. It’s easy to sit inside and stick to your routine, but you end up depriving your body of both happy chemicals when you do that. Find an outdoor activity that you can stomach and make it a priority. Try snowshoeing, learning to ski, winter camping, or landscape painting.

Chances are you have a friend that needs a mid-winter boost as much as you do, so rope them into going with you and learn something together. You’ll get a crazy high from going outside, learning something new, and experiencing some camaraderie all at once!

5. Get Out of Town

If you can, take a vacation and head south. Research has shown that SAD is seven times more common in Washington state than Florida, so get below the 37th parallel (basically anywhere south of Los Angeles) and enjoy some vitamin D.

If you can’t swing a long-distance trip and live in a valley, try heading to the mountains. A valley traps air pollution and cloud cover can be extra depressing, so get to a higher altitude to enjoy some uninterrupted UV rays.


The hardest part about going outside in the winter is convincing yourself to do it in the first place. But once you step outside and feel the sunshine on your face, you’ll realize the outdoors aren’t that bad, even in 30-degree weather. And who knows, maybe you’ll lose some weight, live longer, and find a new hobby because of it!