We have had a gloomy start to the year in Michigan. The sun shined for five minutes in the first eight days of January 2023. Since then, it has been all grey skies and puddles threatening to turn to black ice. So why, you ask, is this woman writing an article about the health benefits of a Michigan winter? I wrote the original love note to winter in 2017, and I update it each year to remind me that a Michigan winter is a test of one’s mettle but also good for physical and mental health!
Yes, the Michigan 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, I landed in Michigan seven 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. Since then, I have found plenty of reasons to love (not hate) Michigan winter.
10 Reasons a Michigan Winter is Good for Your Physical and Mental Health
1. Outdoor Excursions
If you bundle up and get yourself outside, winter sports abound snowshoeing, skiing, skating, hiking, and sledding. Snow resistance, rolling hills, and wind increase the aerobic benefits of all those wind-in-the-face activities. And the cold weather makes the heart work harder to distribute blood. So you get more bang out of your workout. In addition, the icy air helps build cardiovascular endurance. Your mental health is also improved in the great outdoors. The world is bigger than our current problems. And the small victories, like climbing that difficult dune, are worth celebrating!
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. Then, 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. Of course, 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 the arm, back, and core muscles. Further, repetitive activities can help you manage stress and calm your brain. 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, creating 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 practiced this during the pandemic. Studies have also shown that doing normal activities “the hard way” improves brain function. Try walking on ice?
5. Shivering in Michigan Winter
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 works 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 breathe. So burning calories is a bonus; also, better sleep and a healthier appetite!
I know we have all had our fill of hibernating during the pandemic. But there is nothing 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; no place is cozier to hibernate. And harsh winters also make you appreciate the gorgeous Michigan springs, summers, and autumns.
7. Michigan 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 at an unbroken field of snow. In addition, recent studies have proven that looking at art or beauty can impact health by reducing anxiety and depression and boosting critical thinking skills.
8. Community and Camaraderie
We’re all in this together (remember #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 virtual connection can create the feeling of being with faraway loved ones, snowed-in friends, or your therapist via telehealth.
9. Warm Food and Drink, and a Healthy Appetite!
It is refreshing to experience a healthy appetite and warming foods in winter. As the days grow shorter (and darker), our needs seem to change – primitive impulses prompting us to stockpile calories and hibernate.
And while we’re talking 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 helps lower the body’s core temperature. Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate. One of the body’s defenses against cold temperatures is constricting blood vessels, minimizing blood flow to your skin to keep your core body temperature warm. And alcohol is a depressant – something we do not need during the gray days of January and February.
10. The Great Lakes…
An article about the health benefits of a Michigan winter would only be complete with 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 bleak, and I was deciding whether to go for a hike or get back into bed with a bowl of microwave popcorn. I chose the walk 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 Behavioral Health, where the philosophy is to pair hard, evidence-based treatment with meaningful downtime and extra-curricular “excursions.” Rekindling or awakening passionate involvement is one of the keys to successful long-term mental health recovery. In other words, there are other options than languishing and complaining about the weather. In the spirit of journalistic honesty, I did grumble yesterday dragging groceries, dropping gloves under unflinching grit-gray skies. However, this morning there is a fluttering of fresh snow, which is 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 for everyone to experience this winter. To experience means “encountering something, to undergo or feel.” Winter is not just the period to endure before spring. It has its own majesty. Feel it.