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Experience the Health Benefits of the Woods in Wintertime

two children with walking sticks in the snow at Whistler Woods

Winter in a climate like Cook County can take a toll on your health, both physically—since you’re hibernating from the cold—and mentally, since you’re more separated from other people. But taking the road less traveled into a setting like your local Forest Preserve could make all the difference—and be just what the doctor ordered.

“Often times, people feel closed in, and isolated,” says Claudia Gunter, conservation and experiential programming aid in the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s South Zone. “Especially when they might not have knowledge of some of the things they can do. There’s always an opportunity in the Forest Preserves to try something new, and meet someone new.”

Those opportunities can include exercise for the body—like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, ice skating, or simply going on a winter hike—as well as expansions of the mind and soul. The latter span watching the Northern lights, getting to know flora and fauna that can be observed during the winter, writing in a journal to record what you’re seeing and feeling, and peacefully meditating in the forest, known as “forest bathing.”

“We tap into their inner child to explore and know that life continues even in the wintertime,” says Gunter, who coordinates a variety of winter activities as part of her role. “It just helps to beat those winter blues. I tell people it reduces stress, it puts you in a better mood, and the physical activity kicks in those endorphins.”

Research has shown that one hour of hiking can burn 500 calories, hiking and walking can help reverse osteoporosis, and being active in nature significantly cuts the risk of coronary heart diseases as well as the chances of colon cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure. On the brain health side, time spent outdoors boosts attention spans and creative problem-solving skills by as much as 50%, while protecting brain function in older people.

Gunter challenges those who feel hesitant to step out into the cold to “try those new things that are on your list, and maybe you haven’t had a chance to do before. Challenge yourself and trust yourself.” Of course, dress for the elements with layers, thick socks, sturdy shoes, and something to cover “your digits,” she stresses. From a physical activity standpoint, Gunter emphasizes there’s no pressure to compete. “Do you. Work at your own pace,” she says. “The Forest Preserves is offering a lot of things to do in the winter months. And they’re free! If you’ve never tried snowshoeing and don’t want to invest in the equipment, you can try it for free. That’s a big plus.”