21 December 2015 by Helen Todd
In the darkest days of winter, it’s tempting to think back with a touch of nostalgia to long, warm summer days. Yet the change of seasons is part of the inevitable cycle of life and while many of us have a favourite time of year, all seasons bring pleasures as well as their downsides. At its best, winter can be a time of crisp, sparkling days with magnificent views across snow-capped distant mountains. Unfortunately, all too often in Scotland we endure months of cold, wet, windy and miserable days when the sun barely rises above the horizon.
It’s not unusual for most of us to feel the urge to hibernate indoors, and even to be a bit more grumpy than normal. However, for some people this is not just a temporary case of the winter blues; around 20% of the UK population experiences mildly debilitating symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a depressive illness triggered by the lack of daylight in winter. When the Central Belt of Scotland receives less than 7 hours of daylight – and Shetland only around 6 hours – there’s no doubt that Scots could be more prone to SAD than people living elsewhere in the UK.
Walking is the best medicine
So how can we get through the winter without moving to the Mediterranean for the duration? For most of us there is one free and simple way of giving ourselves the best chance of keeping good levels of mental health through the winter months, and that is a daily fix of daylight. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends getting out into natural light as often as possible, a much more welcome treatment than a dose of medication, with very few side effects so long as you’re dressed properly for the weather. Whether it’s walking to the shops or getting away from your desk for half an hour at lunchtime, this consistent dose of daylight will pay dividends. At weekends, when you may have more time available, a brisk walk in a nearby park, along the coast or up a hill will help keep your spirits and energy levels up.
Join others to get outdoors more
As well as the physical benefits of walking, scientific evidence is now beginning to grow on the benefits walking has for our mental health. Walking in a group appears to be particularly good for us, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and increasing social contact –this isn’t news to Ramblers members!
There are walking groups in most areas across Scotland, from short health walks to Ramblers groups which all have their own programmes of led walks running throughout the year. This includes the Festival of Winter Walks running over each Christmas period, when groups particularly invite newcomers to join them. Even on a miserable day there’s much pleasure to be gained by getting outdoors – especially when the walk ends in a nice warm café!
We need to learn to embrace all seasons. Getting out for a regular walk throughout the winter, especially with a group, will help ensure you no longer dread the clocks going back in October and keep fit and healthy in mind and body.