Making Winter Your Wonderland
by jessica renstrom
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
Many people (myself included) set goals to improve their health at the start of a new year, but it can be challenging to form new habits that stand the test of time. If you’re like me, and rising at 5 a.m. to hit the gym feels unattainable, it’s time to look at alternatives.
Here are several ways to boost your health this winter that are achievable and enjoyable.
As tempting as it may be to bundle up in a warm blanket and hibernate until spring, getting outside provides enormous health benefits for those willing to venture into the cold.
“Going outside for even five to 10 minutes can change your mood drastically, especially in more natural areas,” states Emily Chilcoat, Center Director of the Montana Audubon Center in Billings. Indeed, studies suggest that breathing in fresh air increases your brain's oxygen and serotonin levels, uplifting your spirits and enhancing your focus.
The Montana Audubon Center offers families and individuals many ways to experience the great outdoors year-round, complete with some exceptional winter experiences: “All year, we continue with our Weekend Wonders Program and Morning Bird Strolls,” continues Emily. “Our Owl Prowl is especially great in the winter as January and February are the breeding season for owls, so you’re more likely to hear them vocalizing at night now more than any other time in the season. In the winter, we take advantage of it getting darker sooner during our night hikes. When there’s a full moon with snow on the ground, everything just lights up.” Another benefit of winter’s early sunsets? Stargazing. According to Emily, “Winter is a phenomenal time for stargazing, finding basic constellations and seeing different planets, without having to stay up ‘til midnight!”
Boost Vitamin D
Getting outside also helps boost levels of Vitamin D, an essential vitamin that plays a crucial role in maintaining overall health. In addition to promoting bone development. Vitamin D can help fight off infections and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. But at our northern latitude, many Montanans cannot get enough Vitamin D from sun exposure alone. Many experts recommend supplemental Vitamin D during winter to ensure you get what your body needs. Not sure if you’re low? Your doctor can run a simple blood test to see if your body needs a boost. As a person who’s been deficient in Vitamin D (more than once), I can testify that supplementation, when necessary, makes a wonderful difference!
Take a Cold Plunge
Cold plunges are a popular trend right now. A cold plunge involves fully immersing your body in cold water — whether in a bathtub, pool, or lake – and many proponents of this chilly practice state they’ve experienced remarkable improvements in mood, pain, and stress tolerance. Although the bulk of research studying cold plunges has yet to be conducted, much of the initial research is promising. Multiple studies have shown that regular exposure to cold temperatures can enhance insulin sensitivity (helping blood sugar management), and several studies indicate exposure to cold temperatures relieves inflammation.
Ready to give it a try? Despite its advantages, cold plunging can have some risks. So before you fill your bathtub with ice or take a dip in Lake Elmo, make sure to check in with your doctor.
Enjoy a Hot Tub Soak
If reading about cold plunging makes you shiver, perhaps you’re more suited to a different form of hydrotherapy: soaking in a hot tub.
“Hot water can be the bridge that brings you to a different place when you’re living in Montana’s cold climate,” states Scott Prociv, Montana Hot Spring Spas owner. “It makes you feel better physically when you’re in the water soaking, and you’ll feel emotionally and mentally better when you get out. Even a 15-minute soak helps lengthen muscles, increase joint movement and range of motion, and encourage endorphin release.”
Warm water has been used for centuries as a therapy for many ailments. It can effectively decrease pain, improve quality of sleep, and speed up healing by increasing blood flow and circulation. In the winter, cold air and warm water make a powerful combo. “We’re blessed in Montana. Our state is unique. There are so many natural hot springs in Montana, with over 20 commercially operating. The cool, fresh air, in contrast to the warm water, makes for an amazing experience. Those who have done it are amazed by the contrast and continue to seek it out, whether in a natural hot spring or hot tub.”
Want to combine the benefits of warm water and the great outdoors in winter? That’s a recipe for ultimate relaxation, as Scott testifies: “There’s no better way to see the stars than when soaking in a hot tub.”
Saunas, Salt Rooms, & Foot Soaks
Another excellent option for those looking to escape winter’s chill is saunas. There are multiple types of saunas, but all have immense health benefits. If you’ve ever stepped inside a sauna, you’ve probably felt the relaxation firsthand, but did you know that regular sauna use can also decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia? It can also promote skin cleansing, enhance cardiovascular performance, and reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
Infrared saunas, in particular, can help combat the wintertime blues brought on by the decrease in sunshine. “The infrared sauna gives you a lot of the same health benefits as the sun, without the harmful rays and risk of sunburn,” states Lisa Oppegaard, owner of Onyx Wellness Studio & Spa. “It is great for a morale boost, easing anxiety and depression. I recommend people come at least two times a week for results that actually stick.”
Saunas, combined with other therapies, like salt rooms and foot soaks, can greatly help during cold and flu season. “If I’m still feeling congested after being sick, the infrared sauna really helps to clear out my airways,” says Lisa. “The results are even better partnered with our salt room. In the salt room, you breathe in tiny salt particles, which work to clear out your respiratory system, as salt is naturally antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. This is great for allergies and asthma, too.” Combined with a detox foot bath, which works to clear out toxins and impurities from the body, regular use of these therapies helps with recovery from illnesses. It improves overall health to avoid getting sick all year round.
With all these great ways to boost your wellness this season, nothing is stopping you from channeling your inner Elsa (“the cold never bothered me anyway!”), and making this winter your wonderland.
Jessica is a Billings local with a background in marketing and a degree in Communications. She loves being a mom and soaking up time with her young children, especially during the holidays! You can catch her feeling festive and listening to Christmas music basically every day in December.
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