For us adventurous people here in the northeast, this time of year can be deadly. For one thing, it’s cold, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out adventure. It just makes it harder and requires more planning and equipment.
More importantly, it’s dark. A lot. We have just passed the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice on December 21st, a day that gave us a total of 9 hours and 4 minutes of cloudy daylight between 15 hours of darkness.
During these dark days, no amount of planning or equipment can fully offset the subdued mental effects, natural energy, and emotional stress that so much darkness can cause.
For many, these annual dark days of December and its adjoining months mean an annual battle with depression, lethargy, and a slide into unhealthy behavior. About 6% of us struggle with seasonal depression (SAD), a type of depression related to winter darkness and cold, each year.
For many, this time can turn into a cascade of forces of nature and unwise decisions conspiring to stop our adventure mentality and instead trick us into snuggling up with a blanket, hot cocoa, and a movie.
“Most animals show rather dramatic changes in behavior, physiology, and even appearance to better weather the challenges of winter,” said Mary Harrington, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Smith College, whose research focuses in part on biological and circadian rhythms. and fatigue.
“Some animals get caught in what we call paralysis, slow down the bodily functions that keep them alive, lower their body temperature, and are inactive,” says Harrington.
To make matters worse, our metabolism naturally slows down as we age, every decade from the age of 20, so our body burns fewer calories to maintain normal function.
Then add in the vitamin D deficiency most of us suffer from limited exposure to sunlight during the holiday season. At the same time, our body is signaled to produce the hormone melatonin in the dark.
“Melatonin is a signal to fall asleep,” says Harrington, “and since it is only released in the dark, it is also a signal for the length of the night and therefore for the time of year.”
When we have a cold, we also tend to reduce our water intake without thinking about it because we simply don’t need that much fluids. As a result, we become dehydrated, which robs us of energy and the urge to move.
No wonder this time of year tends to kill our desire for outdoor adventure or anything that requires exertion and energy.
Some people love winter – if not the dark – for its snow-related sports and fresh, cool, clean air.
For my part, I do an annual exercise trying to embrace the cold, dark season and I’ve made progress. I enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking and snowshoeing. But no matter how open I am to an adventure plan in winter, I cannot measure myself against the joy of outdoor activities in spring, summer and autumn.
“I love summer” is my daily mantra in the warm season. Winter is becoming too much of a season of survival for me where I can get by and do whatever I have to to survive more temperate days. I don’t always succeed.
Paul Waterman from Northampton can understand that. “Actually, I have to force myself to train in winter,” he says. “The sooner it gets darker, the easier it is to say, ‘We’ll just let it go another day.'”
Waterman, 66, has had his share of adventure. As a lifelong runner, he competed in triathlons a decade ago and is considering focusing on racing again. He has traveled and lived all over the world. But winter makes everything more difficult, he says.
“When it’s dark, it’s easier to just have dinner and go to bed.”
It doesn’t have to be like that.
We could all take inspiration from Easthampton’s Andy Foster, a fourth grade teacher in Northampton public schools who is ready for outdoor adventure any time of the year.
The darkness of December? For Foster, that means just a small adjustment: good lighting. “You have to buy a good headlamp with lots of lumens,” he explains, “nice and bright to light your path. Then you go. “
Foster, 53, an avid biker, runner, hiker, swimmer, and camper, admits he limits his cycling adventures when temperatures dip into his 20s. The wind created by moving through the icy air can be brutal. Instead, he prefers to run because of the faster warm-up and the relative lack of wind. And he’s slept outside every season of the year since his early Boy Scout days. “We went camping every month, year round,” he recalls.
OK, so not everyone has Foster’s persistent energy.
Still, there are things we can do to counterbalance the neurobiological effects of darkness on us. A short slip outside, even for 20 minutes in the midday sun (this is also possible on cloudy days) can provide an important boost in vitamin D and the energy you need. If that is not possible, there is light therapy. It’s a device that emits a bright light that simulates outdoor lighting and has been shown to help with seasonal sleep disorders, depression, and other SAD symptoms, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.
“Light has a general arousing effect on our mind,” says Harrington. “Biologists can describe the neural circuitry that activates light, as well as the wavelengths (colors) or lights that excite humans the most.”
For Waterman, maintaining winter activity is a matter of discipline. “I start feeling guilty when I don’t work out,” he says. “I know I should do something. I don’t want to get out of the aerobic condition. “
Despite all the challenges and efforts, the darkness of winter is accompanied by adventure opportunities that the brighter, warmer seasons do not offer.
Of course there is skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and hiking in the snow, for example. I can attest that there are few experiences that beat snowshoeing down a crisp, wooded trail after a fresh snowfall, especially if you happen to see white-tailed deer like the ones jumping through the woods of the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
And winter walks in the darkness of the early evening are a wonderful way to see the colorful Christmas lights on houses and courtyards in the area and beyond.
But despite outdoor activities, this is also the perfect time of year to plan future adventures. Take the time now to plan all the details of your spring and summer getaways. Make reservations, plan routes, plan some fun warm weather activities. Then you’ll be glad you took the time now and it will help ease the stress of departure when the time comes.
Be creative. If camping is your thing, pitch a tent in your living room and spend a couple of nights camping indoors. Roast marshmallows in the fireplace or around a (safe!) Fire in the garden.
The dark cold of winter does not mean the end of the adventure. It just means different types of adventure. It means adapting to the parameters, adapting the possibilities to what is on offer and planning what we can do.
Just like aging.
Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com.