Trees Go Dormant in the Winter but Your Healthy Lifestyle Shouldn't

Tuesday, January 12, 2021
As the temperature drops and sunlight decreases, deciduous trees shed their leaves and turn their focus to internal storage and conserving resources. Oftentimes our own behavior mirrors that of a dormant tree; it is easy to shed our active, outdoor lifestyle in favor of lounging under blankets and remaining sedentary most of the day. This typically results in added “resources” (aka those pesky extra winter pounds) due to lack of activity and extra stress associated with the holidays and year-end deadlines. Unlike those powered-down trees, it is important for us to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle throughout the colder months to keep ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally powered-up. 
 
A walk outdoors can lift your mood. Breathing fresh clean air and absorbing sunlight helps release serotonin. Walking in tree covered areas is great for this as light peeks through deciduous trees, while trunks, shrub branches and coniferous trees block wind to keep us warm. This boost in your brain release of serotonin correlates with a drop in anxiety and depression.  A walk outdoors is an opportunity to be present and mindful. It is a time to disconnect with electronics and instead connect with nature. Trees help us relax and be attentive to our surroundings which inturn improves our ability to focus and learn.
 
A walk outside, even in the cold, improves our physical health.  Aerobic exercise is great for heart health by improving cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation, and mental stress. Winter activities such as snowshoeing, skiing, biking, sledding, and walking temporarily increases heart rate, strengthening your heart and burns calories. Trees enhance these benefits by lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate, boosting cortisol, and cleaning the air you breathe. A study by U.S. Forest Service researcher Geoffrey Donovan, Ph.D. showed an increase in cardiovascular deaths in areas that lost tree canopy due to emerald ash borer controlling for other factors like diet, exercise, and socioeconomics. The proximity of green space related to good heart health, independent of the other benefits.
 
 
A trendy new activity called Forest Bathing, essentially spending mindful moments in nature, has proven some of the more intangible benefits associated with trees. Immersing oneself in nature is good for the soul; restoring and recharging a person so they can better take on challenges life throws at them. While these benefits are more difficult to measure, they are nonetheless real and valuable. There is something about sitting down in nature after a hard day, reflecting on problems or simply nature itself, that calms the rough seas of your spirit. Mindfulness and awareness of your struggles and stressors seems easier to achieve when you are outdoors. Winter brings a new sense of beauty and wonder to the natural world; sunlight through icicles, morning fog, soft bird songs, a quiet blanket of snow, the physical sensation of breathing in the cold air. Spend mindful moments outdoors in the winter and feel your spirit be lifted.
 
As you begin to reflect on the year ahead, perhaps commencing those new year's resolutions, keep nature in mind for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being and fitness. Spending time outdoors reduces stress (hello, global pandemic!), improves our mood, and encourages us
to be more active. End the cycle of winter dormancy and break bud toward a healthier, happier, more active year ahead.
 
 
Citation
Akers, A., Barton, J., Cossey, R., Gainsford, P., Griffin, M., Mikleright, D. (2012). Visual Color Perception in Green Exercise: Positive Effects on Mood and Perceived Exertion. Environmental Science and Technology. 46(16):8661-8666.

Akers, A., Barton, J., Cossey, R., Gainsford, P., Griffin, M., Mikleright, D. (2012). Visual Color Perception in Green Exercise: Positive Effects on Mood and Perceived Exertion. Environmental Science and Technology. 46(16):8661-8666. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22857379 12 September 2016.

Donovan GH, Butry DT, Michael YL, Prestemon JP, Liebhold AM, Gatziolis D, Mao MY. The relationship between trees and human health: evidence from the spread of the emerald ash borer. Am J Prev Med. 2013 Feb;44(2):139-45. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.09.066. PMID: 23332329.

Gabriele Edwards, Urban Forestry Program Specialist, Iowa DNR

Photo credit and media contact: Emma Hanigan, Urban Forestry Coordinator 515-241-1732 emma.hanigan@dnr.iowa.gov