I just read an article in Thrillist ranking all 50 states by how miserable they are in the winter and I am annoyed. Not only did the writers rank Michigan as number 2 on the misery scale, but they said I was going to put on weight. These guys, who’s claim to credibility is that they “grew up in the Midwest and New England,” say I will have nothing to do between the months of October and April but bowl, rubberneck accidents and pout because the sky is perpetually gray.
Yes, the Winters Are Long…
The Michigan winters are long, but they are not all discolored slush and unidentifiable precipitation. The fact is, those of us who live in Michigan enjoy the winter. There’s a reason Midwesterners are known for our work ethic. We’re made of tougher stuff because of the challenges of our winter weather.
I too was raised in the Midwest. I even went to college at NMU in the Upper Peninsula. But, I left Michigan as soon as I graduated. In a circuitous, full circle hegira through Europe, California, The Bahamas and Florida, I landed back in Michigan last year in a blizzard. Three years sober, and eager to work for Sanford House addiction treatment center, I began to reacquaint myself with an ice scraper and mukluks.
I know all about the temperate, complacent winters of the south. And it’s nice to visit my family in Florida at Christmas. But surviving a bona fide Michigan winter is a test of one’s metal, and super-good for your health.
10 Reasons a Michigan Winter is So Good For Your Health
1. Outdoor Sports
If you bundle up and get yourself outside, winter sports abound: snowshoeing, skiing, skating, hiking and sledding. The aerobic benefits of all those wind-in-the-face activities are increased by snow resistance, Michigan’s rolling hills and, well, wind. And the cold weather makes the heart work harder to distribute blood. So you get more bang out of your workout. The cold air strengthens the heart and helps build cardiovascular endurance.
2. That Ice-skating Rink in the Back Yard!
Here’s something I’ll never hear my family in Florida say, “Look! We have an ice rink in the backyard!” In Michigan, all you have to do is drag the hose to the biggest patch of grass in the back forty and pour on the water. When it freezes, get out the skates and feel the burn. You will improve balance, build leg muscles and exercise your joints for more flexibility.
3. Snow and Ice Removal
Shoveling snow and scraping the windshield are good, upper body exercises. It might not be as fun as skating in the backyard. But chiseling impacted snow from the car or hand digging a path through a foot of heavy white stuff is good for arm, back and core muscles… Great preparation for spring and short sleeves! And if you’re worried about getting hit on the head with an icicle, know you have a greater chance of getting clobbered with a coconut. (But don’t walk under an icicle laden gutter, okay?)
4. Creative Thinking
I’ll be honest, it’s not like we can all sit around, yawn and say, “Shall we go to the beach again?” Michigan natives have to get creative in the winter. And creative thinking is good for your emotional health. It makes you smarter. So when the weather outside is frightful, it’s time for adult coloring books, making the perfect s’more over a fireplace grate, writing the Great American Novel or singing karaoke. Creative thinking reduces stress, boosts self-confidence and stimulates the brain. Studies have also shown that doing familiar activities “the hard way” actually improves brain function. Try walking on ice?
5. Calories Burn!
I wouldn’t recommend this, but shivering can burn 100 calories in fifteen minutes. When it’s cold, you shiver because your body naturally moves the muscles to help warm the body. Even if you’re not cold enough to shiver, your body is still working harder to keep you warm in a Michigan winter. And when you move around outside, your body uses considerable energy to warm and hydrate the air you breath. Burning calories is an added bonus.
There is nothing quite like curling up in a comfortable chair and catching up on reading or a Netflix series when the weather is cold and snowy. Add a cup of warming soup, cider or dark chocolate and there is no place cozier to hibernate. Tough winters also make you appreciate the gorgeous Michigan springs, summers and autumns so much more.
7. Winter’s Otherworldly Beauty
A team of researchers from the United Kingdom, found that beautiful and picturesque landscapes can have a marked, positive influence on a person’s health and attitude. And they don’t have to be all blue skies and green grass, either… Yes, we experience the dreariness of slush and snow clouds, but by contrast, a beautiful winter day is like entering an art gallery. And Michiganders realize the same uplifting result when looking out at an unbroken field of snow. Recent studies have proven that looking at art or beauty can actually impact health, by reducing anxiety and depression and boosting critical thinking skills.
8. Community and Camaraderie
We’re all in this together! One of the things I noticed when I arrived in Michigan last year was the sense of wintertime community. I was pumping gas in a blizzard and everyone seemed like the Whos down in Whoville at Christmas – happy, resourceful, communal and resigned to their fate. There is something fun about experiencing shared obstacles. And a sense of accomplishment when it’s done.
9. Warm Food and Drink, and a Healthy Appetite!
It’s vogue in warm climates to pick at your food and eat your leafy greens. That’s great during the warm seasons, but in winter it is refreshing to experience a healthy appetite and warming food. As the days grow shorter (and darker) our appetites seem to change – primitive impulses promting us to stockpile calories and hibernate. But as long as we’re cautious to offset our favorite creamed soup recipe (and those cups of hot chocolate) with exercise, fresh fruit and veggies, we should be ready for a holiday in the tropics.
And while we’re on the subject of food and drink, let’s talk about alcoholic beverages…
There is a myth that drinking alcohol warms your body and can even prevent hypothermia. Alcohol may make you feel warmer temporarily, but it actually helps lower the core temperature of the body. Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate. One of the body’s defenses against cold temperatures is to constrict blood vessels, minimizing blood flow to your skin in order to keep your core body temperature warm. And alcohol is a depressant – something we do not need during the gray days of January…
10. The Great Lakes…
An article about the health benefits of a Michigan winter would not be complete without a mention of the Great Lakes. Human beings gravitate toward the water, and whether it’s sunny or thick with rain, Michigan’s lakes provide comfort, rigorous exercise, clear air and stunning beauty. Last weekend was pretty bleak, and I was trying to decide whether to go for a hike, or get back into bed with a bowl of microwave popcorn (Blast o’ Butter). I chose the hike along Saugatuck Dunes and when I climbed to the top and saw Lake Michigan in the distance, I felt scrubbed clean.
It’s interesting how my life has come full circle. Here I am, back in Michigan, defending winter – wiser and more clearheaded. And I work for a treatment center where the philosophy is to couple the hard, evidence based work of getting sober, with meaningful downtime and extra-curricular “excursions“. Rekindling or awakening passionate involvement is one of the keys to successful, long term recovery. In other words, languishing and complaining about the weather is not an option.
In the spirit of journalistic honesty, while I’ve written this article, I have experienced an ice storm, sideways sleet, thickened rain (see unidentifiable precipitation above) and unflinching skies of grit gray… However, this morning dumped about five inches of fresh snow on my world and it’s beautiful (if a tad inconvenient)! As to living through a Michigan winter, I would make the same suggestion to every reader – whether you are in recovery or not:
Stop complaining, wear layers and find your winter passion. Whether you are crazy enough to hike up frozen dunes in the rain like me, or not. Experiencing something means to “encounter, undergo or feel“. Winter is not just the period of time to endure before spring. It has its own majesty. Feel it.