At the beginning of winter 2020, there is no question what was in the minds of Michiganders far and wide. After almost a year of isolation, distancing and COVID-19, we are heading into the months when we normally sequester. How are we going to handle this? And when the first snow fell in October in Marquette, I thought (vainly), “Maybe we won’t get snow this year in Grand Rapids. Maybe it will be a mild winter. That would be okay, wouldn’t it? Especially after all we’ve been through.”
Fast forward to February 2022 (need I say more?). Tis the season we keep shovels and pales of salt in front hallways. The time of year my weather APP said silly things like 7 degrees/feels like -5. Winter is here again in all its glory.
Yes, the Winters Are Long…
The Michigan winters are long, but they are not all discolored slush, unidentifiable precipitation, and icebreaking to operate your car. The fact is those of us who live in Michigan enjoy the winter. There’s a reason Midwesterners are known for our work ethic. We’re made of tougher stuff, partly because of the challenges of our winter weather.
I too was raised in the Midwest. I even went to college at NMU in the Upper Peninsula. But I left Michigan as soon as I graduated. In a circuitous, full circle hegira through Europe, California, The Bahamas, and Florida, I landed back in Michigan five years ago (in a blizzard). At that time, three-years sober and eager to work for Sanford Behavioral Health, I began to reacquaint myself with an ice scraper and mukluks.
I know all about the temperate, complacent winters of the south. And it’s nice to visit my family in Florida any time. But surviving a bona fide Michigan winter is a test of one’s mettle, and it’s also good for your health!
10 Reasons a Michigan Winter is Good for Your Health (even during a pandemic)
1. Outdoor Sports
If you bundle up and get yourself outside, winter sports abound: snowshoeing, skiing, skating, hiking, and sledding. The aerobic benefits of all those wind-in-the-face activities are increased by snow resistance, Michigan’s rolling hills and, well, wind. And the cold weather makes the heart work harder to distribute blood. So, you get more bang out of your workout. The icy air helps build cardiovascular endurance.
Harvard Health Publishing reminds us not to over-exert.
A few simple precautions can minimize your risk.
2. That Ice-skating Rink in the Back Yard!
Here’s something I’ll never hear my family in Florida say, “Look! We have an ice rink in the backyard!” In Michigan, all you have to do is drag the hose to the biggest patch of grass in the back forty and pour on the water. When it freezes, get out the skates and feel the burn. You will improve balance, build leg muscles and exercise your joints for more flexibility.
3. Snow and Ice Removal
Shoveling snow and scraping the windshield are good, upper body exercises. It might not be as fun as skating in the backyard. But chiseling impacted snow from the car or hand digging a path through a foot of heavy white stuff is good for arm, back and core muscles. Great preparation for spring and short sleeves! And if you’re worried about getting hit on the head with an icicle, know you have a greater chance of getting clobbered with a coconut. (But don’t walk under an icicle laden gutter, okay?)
4. Creative Thinking
Michigan natives have to get creative in the winter. And creative thinking is good for your emotional health. It makes you smarter. So when the weather outside is frightful, it’s time for adult coloring books, making the perfect s’more over a fireplace grate, writing the great American novel, or singing karaoke. Creative thinking reduces stress, boosts self-confidence and stimulates the brain – we’ve practiced this during the pandemic. Studies have also shown that doing familiar activities “the hard way” actually improves brain function. Try walking on ice?
5. Calories Burn!
I wouldn’t recommend this, but the NIH says shivering can burn calories. When it’s cold, you shiver because your body naturally moves the muscles to help warm the body. Even if you’re not cold enough to shiver, your body is still working harder to keep you warm in a Michigan winter. And when you move around outside, your body uses considerable energy to warm and hydrate the air you breath. Burning calories is an added bonus.
I know we have all had our fill of hibernating during 2020/2021. But, there is nothing quite like curling up in a comfortable chair and catching up on reading or a Netflix series when the weather is cold and snowy. Add a cup of warming soup, cider, or hot chocolate and there is no place cozier to hibernate. And tough winters also make you appreciate the gorgeous Michigan springs, summers and autumns so much more.
7. Winter’s Otherworldly Beauty
A team of researchers from the United Kingdom, found that beautiful and picturesque landscapes can have a marked, positive influence on a person’s health and attitude. And they don’t have to be all blue skies and green grass, either. Yes, we experience the dreariness of slush and snow clouds, but by contrast, a beautiful winter day is like entering an art gallery. And Michiganders realize the same uplifting result when looking out at an unbroken field of snow. Recent studies have proven that looking at art or beauty can actually impact health, by reducing anxiety and depression and boosting critical thinking skills.
8. Community and Camaraderie
We’re all in this together (#alonetogether)! Snow gives one a sense of wintertime community. There is something fun about experiencing shared obstacles. And a sense of accomplishment when it’s done. And here is where I mention virtual connect with loved ones in Florida, snowed-in friends or your therapist.
9. Warm Food and Drink, and a Healthy Appetite!
It’s vogue in warm climates to pick at your food and eat your leafy greens. That’s great during the warm seasons, but in winter it is refreshing to experience a healthy appetite and warming food. As the days grow shorter (and darker) our appetites seem to change – primitive impulses prompting us to stockpile calories and hibernate. But as long as we’re cautious to offset our favorite creamed soup recipe with exercise, fresh fruit, and veggies we should be ready for a holiday in the tropics.
And while we’re on the subject of food and drink, let’s talk about alcoholic beverages
There is a myth that drinking alcohol warms your body and can even prevent hypothermia. Alcohol may make you feel warmer temporarily, but it actually helps lower the core temperature of the body. Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate. One of the body’s defenses against cold temperatures is to constrict blood vessels, minimizing blood flow to your skin in order to keep your core body temperature warm. And alcohol is a depressant – something we do not need during the gray days of February, while still in a pandemic.
10. The Great Lakes…
An article about the health benefits of a Michigan winter would not be complete without a mention of the Great Lakes. Humans gravitate toward the water, and whether it’s sunny or thick with sleet, Michigan’s lakes provide comfort, rigorous exercise, clear air, and stunning beauty. Last weekend was pretty bleak, and I was trying to decide whether to go for a hike, or get back into bed with a bowl of microwave popcorn. I chose the hike along Saugatuck Dunes and when I climbed to the top and saw Lake Michigan in the distance, I felt scrubbed clean.
Experience Michigan Winter…
It’s interesting how my life has come full circle. Here I am, back in Michigan defending winter, wiser and more clearheaded. And I work for Sanford, where the philosophy is to couple the hard, evidence-based work of getting sober, with meaningful downtime and extra-curricular “excursions“. Rekindling or awakening passionate involvement is one of the keys to successful long-term recovery. In other words, languishing and complaining about the weather is not an option.
In the spirit of journalistic honesty, I did grumble yesterday the third time I had to get out my car scraper under unflinching, grit gray skies. However, this morning there is fresh snow and it’s beautiful. As to living through a Michigan winter, I would make the same suggestion to every reader, whether you are in recovery or not.
Stop complaining, wear layers and find your winter passion. You might not enjoy hiking up frozen dunes in a maelstrom like me, but there is something out there for you to experience this winter. Experiencing something means to “encounter, undergo or feel”. Winter is not just the period of time to endure before spring. It has its own majesty. Feel it.