On adjusting to the cold and dark

After suffering from SAD for half my life, I’ve had it pretty good the past few years. Last year in particular was actually great—it was like I was a regular person.

This year has not gotten off to a good start, with gloom pressing in on me before we’d even reached Halloween.

With every year being an experiment with n=1 it’s hard to know what makes a difference and what doesn’t, but one thing that occurred to me right away was that last year I had gotten my mind right about the cold (in particular) early.

Two strong influences in the early fall last year were Jackie (who always enjoys the cold weather as an opportunity to wear her woollies) and Katy Bowman (who talks about cold as an opportunity for movement).

In particular, in the run-up to last winter, I came upon not just Katy Bowman but plenty of other natural-movement/ancestral-health folk talking about using cold as an appropriate stressor via cold training.

Many things that people do to induce healthful, adaptive changes in the body are stressors, and produce their beneficial effects precisely for that reason—because the body adapts to tolerate the stress by becoming stronger. Load-bearing exercise makes for stronger muscles and bones. Endurance exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system. Mechanical stresses make for tougher skin. Heat (as in a sauna, but also just from being active outdoors on a hot day) prompts the production of heat-shock proteins that have numerous protective effects at a cellular level, and it turns out that not just heat but all kinds of other stressors, including cold, cause the body to upregulate the production of those same proteins.

Anyway, my point is not that I need to jump into some Wim Hof-style cold training, but that there was a mental shift that I managed to make last year: to view cold as an appropriate stressor that I should revel in, rather than a source of unpleasantness that I should avoid.

This year I haven’t (yet) managed it. Partially I think it was just that the people I follow about this stuff probably feel like they’ve had their say about cold training and have moved on to other stuff, so I wasn’t hearing about it at exactly the right time. Partially I think it was because of the details of the change of seasons this year: We had hot summer weather right into October, then there was a week when it was very rainy, and then it changed to cold, late-fall weather.

Something about missing out on the transition from summer to fall meant that I was taken off-guard. I went from walking shirtless in the sun to wearing a winter coat with no transition except some days when it was too cloudy to get any sun anyway.

However, I am determined not to let this thwart me. It is not too late to get my mind right about the cold.

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Targeting minimums versus averages for movement

There’s a downside to my plan to hit my movement goal every day in December that I had not considered.

As I discussed a few days ago, I was aware of some of the downsides of using an unbroken streak for motivation—that it can tempt one to continue a streak when doing so would be unhealthy, and that it can be terribly demotivating when it is finally broken.

This is different. It has to do with setting a target that’s a little aggressive, and then making it a minimum.

My current goal, as far as Google Fit is concerned, is 90 minutes of movement. The default was 60 minutes, but I bumped it up right away back when I was manually entering my taiji sessions. They’re typically an hour long, so one class put me over the top; the lower goal didn’t motivate me to move at all.

It’s not a very aggressive goal. Looking back at my history, I generally hit it more than half the time—about 4 days a week. Looking at it on a per-week basis, I do quite a bit better than that, totaling at least 7x my daily goal about 4 weeks out of 5.

Looking at it terms of miles rather than minutes, I walk between 20 and 25 miles almost every week, but I don’t do it by walking 3 miles per day. Rather, I walk 4 or 5 miles three or four times a week, and then one day I take a long walk in the 8–15 mile range. I think it’s healthier to have a mix of short, medium, and long days, and to include an occasional rest day when needed.

And that’s what’s been lacking so far this month. My goal isn’t so aggressive that I’m suffering from the lack of adequate rest days, but it’s aggressive enough that I’ve reduced my scope for including a really long day every week or two.

I suppose Google Fit could accommodate this a programmatically, through something like separate minimum and average goals, but that seems like an unnecessary complication. Probably better to just do what I was doing before this month, and aim to hit the target on average.

I wouldn’t want to continue this unbroken streak forever, but so far it is doing what it was supposed to do: encourage me to get a good amount of movement during the dark days of early winter.

Now that I’ve noticed this issue, I should be sure to get in a long walk soon. If I don’t go overboard, I should be able to take a long walk without needing so much rest that I can’t hit my minimum the next day. And if I can’t, well, the unbroken streak is a motivational tool, not an end in itself.

The photo above was taken at the University of Illinois Conservatory, which was a destination for our walk a couple of days ago. Here’s another, with Jackie.

Jackie in the Conservatory

Dealing with the dark

I’m prone to a particular bit of black humor this time of year. Usually a little earlier—maybe at the beginning of November—I’ll mention how early the sunsets are, how late the sunrises are, and point out that things are just going to get worse for six more weeks, and that it’ll be twelve weeks before things are this good again.

I joked similarly to my brother a day or two ago, and he pointed out that, although my joke is true in October or November, in December it’s wrong: by this point in the year things almost don’t get any worse. And he’s right. After all, the word solstice comes from the Latin for standstill.

Today there’s going to be nine and a half hours of daylight, and on the solstice there’s going to be nine and a third hours of daylight. Big whoop. I can deal with that.

Rounded to the nearest minute, we have already reached our earliest sunset of the year. That is, today the sun will set at 4:27. It will continue to set at 4:27 until December 13th, when it will set at 4:28.

(The sunrises continue to get later for a bit. It’s not until December 29th that we get a sunrise at 7:15, and not until January 4th that we get a sunrise at 7:14.)

I didn’t use to take much comfort in this. Knowing that things didn’t get much worse from here on out didn’t help when I was already depressed. But these days I tolerate the dark pretty well, and that means that I can take comfort from knowing that things are already about as bad as they’re going to get. Yes, it will still be mostly indoor exercise weather until March, but that’s okay—I have strategies for indoor exercise.

I’m not sure exactly what to credit for the improvement. I suspect that not working a regular job is the biggest factor, but taking vitamin D supplements seems to have helped as well. And, of course, getting enough exercise is both a cause and an effect.