Cabin fever has taken on new meaning this winter, as the cold and short days are exacerbated by pandemic-driven social distancing and self-quarantine.

Sequestering indoors is hardly the way to feel any better, says Dr. John Sharp, a clinical psychiatrist and specialist in seasonal affective disorder at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Too little sunlight is stressful and affects our emotional and physical well-being, making us vulnerable to being pessimistic and fatigued.

There is, however, something that you can do about feeling cloistered, and it doesn’t cost a dime. A 10- to 20-minute walk outside during the winter months can boost your immune system and Vitamin D levels, burn calories, and deliver a quick mood boost.

Walking in cold weather may also help to keep illness at bay because it flushes bacteria out of your airways and lungs, according to MedlinePlus, a website from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Even if the sun does not look as if it is going to come out, spending time in daylight helps to maintain high spirits, provides fresh air, and puts more oxygen into your system.

“Feeling comfortable makes a big difference,” says Stan Corcoran, executive vice president of MIIA. “After spending the spring and summer hiking, I’ve invested in a warmer coat, hat and gloves so we can keep up with our walks. Getting outside, while remaining socially distant has really helped during these challenging times.”

MIIA Health Trust Manager Chris Bailey notes that sometimes the hardest part is getting out the door. But, he adds, “We dress the kids up to stay warm and do the same ourselves. And once you’re out, you’re really glad you did it.”

Don’t hesitate to go outdoors during your lunch break or whenever you can. Just a few minutes of fresh air, sunshine and focusing on the outdoor environment can be uplifting and refresh your outlook.

If you think it’s too cold to go outside, you might want to take a page from the citizens of Norway, where the average winter temperature is 19.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Norwegians embrace being outdoors, and their heritage of “Friluftsliv” offers an alternative, hardy inspiration for a frigid time of year. Friluftsliv, was popularized in 1859 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and loosely means “free air life.” Friluftsliv is a commitment to celebrating time outdoors, no matter the weather forecast, and a popular saying throughout Scandinavia is, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

“Friluftsliv is more than just an activity, it’s a kind of lifestyle,” says Lasse Heimdal, secretary general of Norsk Friluftsliv, an organization representing 5,000 outdoors groups in Norway. “Most people think it’s healthy, it’s social. … You get kind of a time-out from cell phones and computers, being outdoors and in nature, it’s one of the best places to relax.”

Outdoor life does not have to focus on competition or timekeeping, but on physical activity at your own pace, explains Dag Terje Klarp Solvang, of the Norwegian Trekking Association, as well as relaxation and time for yourself and with others. It really is something that everyone can enjoy.

120 minutes per week
Spending just two hours a week in natural environments such as parks or green spaces boosts well-being, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal “Nature.”

People who spent two hours a week outdoors, either all at one time or spaced over several trips, were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who did not. Those studied cut across different occupations and socioeconomic groups and included people with illnesses and disabilities.

An emerging area of research, ecopsychology, examines the relationship between people and nature. Studies have shown how immersion in nature can benefit one’s health, reduce stress and speed the rate of healing, among other benefits.

Walking works whether you have time for a long walk or just 10 minutes of free time in your day, according to the American Heart Association’s Cold Weather Fitness Guide. You are also more likely to stick with walking than any other form of exercise.

So, grab your hat and find a time to take a 10-minute jaunt to walk the dog, or a stroll around the block after dinner. It’ll make a world of difference.

Written by Joyce McMahon