Active Hibernation

When it comes to getting through the long cold Inland Northwest winters, most of us treat our cars better than we treat our bodies.

In preparation for sub-zero temperatures and icy roads, we winterize our Subarus wth a flush and fill, replace the windshield wiper blades, head to Les Schwab for snow tires, and make sure we have extra batteries for the flashlight and trail mix in the glovebox (does anyone actually use these for gloves?).

And yet our bodies tend to take a lot of extra abuse from November through February. Pumpkin pie, extra gravy, fudge and an abundance of alcohol combine with less activity to contribute to lower fitness levels, seasonal weight gain and possible added stress and depression. Yes, we are hard-wired to hunker down for the dark days of the coming season and put on a little weight to keep us warm through the ancestral “famine” of winter, but should we really let our summer activity levels die off only to start up again (often painfully) come spring?

Washington’s Independent Physical Therapists are launching a statewide campaign recommending “Active Hibernation” as a method of staying fit and happy during these slower months. According to Debbie Peterson, physical therapist with Northside Physical Therapy in Spokane, the concept of “Active Hibernation” is being promoted in an effort to encourage people to reduce common springtime strains and sprains by remaining active throughout the winter.

Peterson recommends people not only take advantage of indoor exercise facilities like gyms, swimming pools and climbing walls, but that we get outside during daylight hours, as well. A lunch-hour walk in the sunshine or an afternoon at a favorite local ski hill can not only maintain fitness, but reduce stress, anxiety and the northern-climate “winter blues,” or more seriously, Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder, commonly known as “SAD.”

Rebecca Bohn, M.A., a Spokane licensed mental health counselor who specializes in anxiety and teaches classes in stress management, says a sedentary lifestyle increases the likelihood of depression, and depression increases the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle. “Chronic stress can lead to depression and anxiety, which can increase in winter months due to decreases in activity and sunlight. Exercise is not a magic bullet but it is a powerful remedy for realigning brain chemistry by increasing production of feel-good neurotransmitters, and by burning up hormones produced when our bodies are under stress,” says Bohn.

Finding the time to exercise can be difficult in our busy lives, especially during the harried holiday season. Peterson says that new research shows that shorts bursts of intermittent exercise are beneficial in bringing about changes and maintaining current fitness levels. “The hardest thing about exercising is putting on your shoes,” maintains Peterson. “Once you’ve done that, you have made the commitment to move. You don’t need to set aside a full hour-I tell my patients to make appointments with themselves for exercise, even in 20 or 30 minutes blocks of time.”

The “Active Hibernation” campaign is also suggesting we mitigate weight gain due to lower activity levels and holiday temptations with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, water and lean sources of protein. Peterson recommends we make an “eating plan” at the beginning of each day, planning meals and bringing healthy snacks to work so hunger pangs won’t steer us toward the holiday cookie platters in the break room every afternoon.

Washington Independent Physical Therapists recommend using a physical therapist for consultation with winter exercise programs to avoid strain or injury when participating in a fitness routine, particularly running where proper alignment is important. “It’s like driving your car around with the wheels out of alignment,” says Peterson. “Eventually, you will do damage to your tires and vehicle. It’s the same thing with our bodies.”

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