Put some spring into your walking

As winters go, this hasn't (so far) been a terrible one in Chicago. A little cold, a bit of snow but we've had days of decent temperatures.

So we have little reason to hibernate until warmer weather arrives. Walking outdoors on a winter's day is actually good for us for a variety of reasons. You just have to, as our mothers used to say, dress for the weather.

Research has long established the benefits of walking outdoors. It reduces stress, elevates your mood and improves your sleep. You might even lower your blood pressure and lose a bit of weight — with regular energized walking. It's a weight-bearing exercise that's good for your joints and, for women, bone preservation.

Unlike walking on a treadmill, walking outdoors is also a social activity. You can carry on a conversation with a buddy while getting in that 20- or 30-minute walk.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are benefits that are specific to walking in colder weather. Here are some of them, along with some warnings and safety tips.

• We burn more calories.

When it's cold, our bodies have to work harder to maintain our core temperature, so you burn more calories. You can burn even more calories by going uphill and downhill and swinging your arms. Walking poles are also a way to take your walk to the next level.

• We can boost our brains

Researchers have found cognition is actually improved with winter activity, meaning it can help you think more clearly. If you're having trouble focusing at work, your brain might benefit from a brisk walk outdoors.

• We can fight infections.

Indoor air tends to be heated, and we certainly don't open the windows as much, which makes it ideal for transmitting viruses. A study by scientists at Charles University in Prague showed exposure to the cold can activate the human immune system. It's a modest improvement — not as good as a vaccine — but you might reduce the likelihood of getting a cold or the flu.

• We can look better.

Moderately cold temperatures (40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) constrict blood vessels in the skin and makes it less prone to redness and swelling. It can also tighten your pores — and give you that rosy glow!

• We get a better cardio workout.

Exercising in cold weather causes the heart to pump more oxygenated blood around the body to maintain its temperature.

• We can beat the winter blues.

The dark and cold days of winter are often associated with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Activity will cause your body to boost chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, which can improve a feeling of well-being.

Before you head outside, though, familiarize yourself with some possible hazards and safety tips.

Hypothermia: A dangerous drop in body temperature is one winter hazard. If it's very windy and cold, put your walk off to another day. Warm up your muscles indoors by walking in place and light arm pumping before going out.

Pick the right clothes: Wear several layers of loose clothing. The layers will trap warm air between them. Avoid tight clothing — leggings and such — which can keep your blood from flowing freely and lead to loss of body heat. Wear a hat, scarf and gloves and appropriate snow- or water-repellent boots or shoes.

Wear light colors or something reflective: And stay aware of your surroundings; you don't want to slip on the ice. Don't walk on rivers or bodies of water that may look frozen but aren't. It's OK to listen to music or a podcast while walking, but it's best not to be distracted by phone or video conversations.

Consider yourself lucky if your neighborhood or area around your office is safe for pedestrians. But we have a lot of great walking spots in the Chicago area. You can find paved paths in the forest preserves and among suburban and city parks.

The best exercise is the one you'll actually do. Walking is easy, low-impact and accessible. So if you're battling the winter blues or just sitting on the couch too much, bundle up and enjoy a winter walk.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.

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