Some of the central features of a healthy lifestyle, such as sunlight, exercise, and connection with nature, are far easier to maintain when you can be outside, but things such as disagreeable weather and rigid work schedules can make that difficult.
Although I don’t often have to deal with harsh winter weather in California, I’ve definitely gotten a taste of it over the past couple weeks while traveling for my book tour, so I thought I’d share some strategies for staying healthy even if the winter weather (or other factors) leave you stuck inside!
Cold weather keeping you inside? Stay healthy with these tips from @Chriskresser.
Supplement with Vitamin D3
One of the most important things you’re missing if you can’t get outside is sunlight. Even if you have a sunny window in your home or office, windows absorb (and thus block) UVB rays, so any sunlight you get through the glass won’t lead to the formation of active vitamin D. (1) And during the winter, chances are you wouldn’t get enough vitamin D from the sun even if you managed to get outside on a regular basis. Above a certain latitude, the UVB rays aren’t strong enough to trigger vitamin D production during the winter months; for example, exposure to sunlight in Boston produced declining amounts of vitamin D after August, and none at all from November through February. (2)
It’s possible for some people to get enough vitamin D from food by consuming a lot of fatty fish, lard from pastured pigs, and egg yolks. Yet for many others, food won’t be sufficient to maintain vitamin D levels in an optimal range. (Note: there are genetic differences we’re only beginning to understand that affect vitamin D absorption, and these may determine if food is an adequate source of vitamin D for you or not.) If you fall into the latter group, I recommend taking a vitamin D3 supplement if you aren’t getting adequate sunlight. Cod liver oil is a great choice, or you can use these drops. You should test your vitamin D levels at least once to get a feel for what kind of maintenance dose (if any) you might need to do in the winter, especially if you want to take a more targeted vitamin D supplement, like drops or a pill. I discuss optimal vitamin D levels at length in this podcast (and in the bonus chapter on supplementation in my book), and I believe a range of 25-50 with a target of 35 is reasonable. If you don’t want to test your levels, I recommend sticking with cod liver oil as a supplement because it’s a whole food that also contains important cofactors like vitamins A, and K2 if you get the butter oil blend. One teaspoon per day during the winter months is a good guideline for maintaining health.
Fill your house with plants
Another health-promoting practice that’s difficult to maintain when you can’t spend time outside is connecting with nature. While it may seem impossible to connect with nature without actually spending time in nature, using indoor plants to bring nature inside actually has many documented therapeutic effects.
One benefit of house plants is their ability to remove toxins from the air. It doesn’t always occur to people that the air inside our homes could be a source of toxins, but many synthetic household items such as carpet, paint, insulation, and fabric often emit a number of compounds that you probably don’t want to be inhaling. Luckily, NASA did some research a while back on ways to maintain air quality in small, tightly-sealed environments in space, which then prompted other researchers to explore the air-purifying capabilities of house plants. A number of studies have found that many plants do an excellent job of sequestering compounds such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, other volatile organic compounds, and other potentially harmful gases and particles. (3, 4) Some of the most efficient air-purifying plants include english ivy, spider plants, and peace lilies, all of which can live well indoors. (5)
Also, simply being around plants indoors has been shown to relax people and improve health. Two studies have shown that indoor plants significantly improve the mental and physical wellbeing of office workers, and another found that placing plants in a Taiwanese eighth grade classroom reduced absences, improved behavior, and increased the overall happiness of the students as compared with the control classroom with no plants. (6, 7, 8)
Clearly, a simple indoor plant can be pretty powerful for your health. They’re not very expensive, they’re attractive and easy to maintain, and they don’t have to take up much space, so there’s really no reason not to buy a few plants for your indoor space.
Create a movement-friendly indoor environment
It’s important to keep moving even if you can’t get outside during the day. Unfortunately, Americans are more likely to exercise in the spring and summer when people can be outside, and less likely in the winter. (9) Even if you typically exercise at a gym instead of outdoors, it can be difficult to get up the motivation to go to the gym when it’s freezing cold and you just want to stay inside with a blanket and a hot drink. And if you’re stuck inside for reasons other than the weather, chances are good you may find yourself sitting in one place all day, so it’s important to make your space as ‘movement-friendly’ as possible.
I’m a big fan of incorporating movement throughout my daily routine, as opposed to dedicating certain chunks of time to ‘formal’ exercise, and I cover the many benefits of this approach – as well as strategies to implement it – in Your Personal Paleo Code (published in paperback as The Paleo Cure in December 2014). You may know by now that one of my favorite tools is my treadmill desk, so that even if I’m stuck inside working, I can get in a lot of movement. It’s also helpful to have some basic strength-training equipment at home or in your office, such as a pull-up bar, push-up handles, or even some free weights. Making an effort to take beaks from whatever you’re doing indoors to do a set of push-ups or run up and down the stairs is a huge step towards staying healthy in less-than-ideal climate conditions.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, “grounding” (or “earthing”) consists of establishing a connection between your body and the earth that allows for transfer of electrons. (10) The theory is that our bodies tend to accumulate a positive charge through its various metabolic processes, and these charged particles called “free radicals” can do damage to proteins and DNA in our body. (11) The earth is a source of negatively-charged electrons, so connecting with the earth can neutralize those free radicals and prevent damage, much like the antioxidants found in foods.
I mentioned grounding previously as a strategy for a healthy summer, but it’s difficult to stay grounded when you can’t be outside barefoot on a regular basis. Luckily, you don’t have to have your body in direct contact with the earth to experience the benefits of grounding. You can actually buy earthing mats and sheets that simply plug into a grounded outlet, allowing you to stay electrically connected to the earth. I’ve heard many positive reviews about these products, so give them a try if you’re interested.
These are my top four ways to reduce some of the potentially negative effects of being indoors all the time, especially during the cold winter months. If you have any other suggestions, please share in the comments!