BEAT the winter blues with regular walking, writes Helen Todd
Now, in the darkest days of December, 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 cycle of life and while many of us have a favourite time of year, all seasons bring pleasures as well as 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 long stretches of cold, wet, windy months where the sun barely lifts above the horizon. The cosy contentment of an evening spent by a warm fire with a good book and a dram can be outweighed by the grim daily routine when daylight is barely glimpsed for weeks on end.
It’s not unusual for most of us to feel some kind of 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 per cent 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. SAD has a wide range of symptoms along a spectrum from feeling in low spirits to a sense of hopelessness and despair, from being a bit irritable to finding it hard to be with other people. When the Central Belt of Scotland receives less than seven hours of daylight – and Shetland only around six hours – there’s no doubt that Scots could be more prone to SAD than people living elsewhere in the UK.
So how can we get through the winter without actually moving to the Mediterranean for the duration? The 2 per cent of the population who experience SAD as a serious debilitating illness may require treatment such as use of a light box or anti-depressants. However, for the rest of us there is one free and simple way of keeping good levels of mental health throughout the winter months, and that is to get 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 as 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 dividend.
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 your energy levels up.
Walking has long been recognised as a good way of keeping physically fit, but scientific evidence is now beginning to grow on the benefits it brings to our mental health throughout the year, which is important for our sense of wellbeing and our resilience in dealing with whatever life throws at us. Likewise, research shows that walking in a group brings particular benefits which are greater than if walking alone. As well as the benefits of feeling fitter and enjoying reduced risk of a range of diseases, walking in a group helps reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and increases social contact. Making a commitment to take part also means people are more likely to turn up rather than being put off by a wet morning, and to keep up the activity over time.
There are walking groups in most areas across Scotland, so there’s no excuse not to check out your local club. Health walks organised by local authorities cater for beginners, and there’s a wide variety of volunteer-led groups easily found by a quick internet search, including the 56 Ramblers groups which all have their own programmes of led walks running throughout the year. This includes the Festival of Winter Walks running from 19 December to 3 January, 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.
• Helen Todd is campaigns & policy manager at Ramblers Scotland