As you stroll along the C&O Canal in the depths of January, just one of Montgomery County’s many trails ideal for winter walking, the first thing that hits you is the silence. There is no one else out here, but then you begin to notice … the doe scuttling in the underbrush, the bald eagle swooping upon its prey, the reflection of dark spindly branches on the mirrorlike river.
Indeed, with proper planning, winter walking can become one of your favorite activities—and an important one to get you through the year’s darkest, most confining months. But wait, isn’t it too cold? Why not just stay snuggled up on the couch or in front of a roaring fire?
“Winter is not some time to hibernate,” says Bob Schmick, president of the Maryland Volkssport Association. “We can do everything in winter that we can do in summer. Just take more clothes.”
And as you move, you’ll kick in motion an onslaught of benefits.
Studies have shown, for example, that walking outside provides a dose of vitamin D that can help ward off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression provoked by seasonal change.
“It’s important to know that the shorter days and cold weather trigger changes in our brains,” says Meira Ellias, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist and owner of DC Therapeutic Services in Bethesda. “These changes can activate symptoms that are closer to depression than the ‘winter blues.’ There are multiple ways to effectively treating SAD, one of which is putting on your coat and getting outside. Getting access to direct sunlight can help decrease these side effects.”
Plus, walking helps reduce stress. Harvard Medical School researchers have proven that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and increases feel-good endorphins, which will last in your system for over a week.
And here’s some good news. You’ll burn more calories than in summertime, and the fat-burning effect is longer. A study by researchers at Princeton University found that the metabolic rate can increase as much as 40 percent in cold weather, and the effect will last for another 48 to 72 hours—15 to 20 percent longer than in warmer weather.
Finally, a change of scenery is simply good for the soul.
“With COVID keeping more people working and going to school remotely, we are spending more time around our families than ever before,” Ellias says. “Getting some time alone, or on a socially distanced walk with friends, can help with any tensions that may arise at home.”
The best part? Traipsing back in from the cold and reaping the benefits, as you enjoy an après-hike mug of hot chocolate (or hot buttered rum!) in front of a roaring fire. Go ahead, you deserve it!