It is midwinter, the excitement of a new year is over and spring feels like a distant prospect. It’s not unusual to feel a bit gloomy at this time of year – the days are short, the weather is often inclement and there is less to do in the garden, so we naturally spend more time indoors. This, though, tends only to accentuate low spirits: the lack of sunlight can affect your mood and your sleep patterns.
Undeniably, spending time outdoors can be uplifting and increase energy levels – the cobweb-busting New Year’s Day walk has become a tradition for many families. Some experts suggest that following a routine of enjoying quality outdoor time every day – even just 30 minutes - can help us to power through that winter ‘blah’ feeling. British physician Sir Muir Gray famously said that everyone needs a ‘Natural Health Service’ as well as a National Health Service.
The key to getting outdoors each day is to follow whatever it is that interests you.
Winter garden time
There is increasing scientific evidence which shows that spending time gardening or just ‘being’ in gardens is good for our physical, mental and social wellbeing. Well-known BBC gardening presenter Monty Don has spoken openly about his struggles with depression, how it can be worse in winter and how gardening and being in nature has helped him improve his mental health.
Gardening in the winter can be challenging, but there are still things to do. Spring bulbs can be planted as late as January and a potting table outside can easily be used to pot up indoor displays or window boxes of winter pansies. Winter is also an ideal time for pruning many shrubs, including roses, some climbing plants and deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs. Many people find the process of pruning very meditative and, if a few simple guidelines are followed, it is relatively straightforward.
Whilst many plants are dormant during winter, bird feeding stations see a lot of traffic in the winter months! A variety of seeds and feeders will attract different species to your garden and make a pleasant show as you drink your morning coffee. Engaging with nature is about small actions every day and can be surprisingly effective as a mood enhancer. Various guides to nurturing wildlife can be found online and you may also want to take part in RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch.
There are huge health benefits to be enjoyed from exercising outdoors, amongst nature. In the dark winter months, when we often travel to and from work in the dark, or spend whole days at home in front of a screen, having a well-lit decking area outside can provide the perfect exercise/activity station. This needn’t be frenetic exercise - yoga, pilates or tai chi can be great for stretching and strengthening muscles and relieving tension. Even a quick game of Twister outside with the kids or shooting some basketball hoops can make all the difference!
A decking area with some heating from a bistro style heater or a garden stove and some comfortable seating is an ideal place to practise ‘present-moment awareness’, savouring each moment, using all of your senses. The art of present-moment awareness is, as the phrase suggests, to focus only on the present moment, forgetting about the past and not worrying about the future, simply enjoying what we can see, hear and feel in the here and now. Mindfulness teachers say that this is key to living a long and happy life. Even if you do not actually live longer in terms of calendar time, your experience of life and your perception of time will expand. The days, months, and years can be richer, more meaningful, and more fully lived.
There are so many benefits to being outdoors, even in the depths of winter, that we should make the most of any and every opportunity we get. It may take a bit of self-discipline to get up off the sofa in the first place, but the gains in physical and mental wellbeing are too great to ignore.