Staying healthy during the dark days of winter

While the shortest day of the year may be behind us, there is still plenty of winter left for us in Seattle — this means short, cool and often gloomy days with little sunlight. Staying healthy during this time of year can feel like a challenge, but there are a few things you can do to keep healthy this winter.

The sun vitamin

As many of us know living in the Northwest, vitamin D is an important part of a healthy body. But this far north, we do not get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. Our bodies naturally synthesize vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, and all you need for a week’s worth of vitamin D is 15 to 20 minutes in the direct sun with a significant amount of skin exposed. But during the winter months that can be difficult to come by.

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which supports the development and maintenance of healthy bones. Insufficient amounts of vitamin D, especially in children, can cause a condition called rickets, a softening of the bones. For older people, vitamin D and calcium are important in preventing osteoporosis, or brittle bones.

While we’ve known about the connection between vitamin D and calcium for some time, recent research has shown that vitamin D may also improve muscle recovery and help prevent soreness and aching. Research has also shown that vitamin D may help with immune function and may improve depression symptoms and help alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

You can get small amounts of vitamin D from foods such as fish, eggs and fortified milk, but for people living in the Seattle area, it is difficult to get enough vitamin D without taking a supplement. I recommend that my patients take a daily vitamin D supplement with 1,000 to 2,000 international units (IU) to ensure sufficient vitamin D levels.

The great outdoors

Another aspect of maintaining your health over the winter is to stay active. People often find it difficult to motivate themselves to exercise during the winter because of the weather. But staying active is an important part of maintaining your health and immune system and can help you fight off or recover from colds and other winter viruses faster.

If going to the gym by yourself is the last thing you want to do, find an exercise buddy or sign up for a class. The social aspect will help motivate you to keep your schedule, and people often find it more fun to exercise in pairs or groups. Along similar lines, there are lots of recreational sports leagues in Seattle playing everything from basketball to dodgeball to Ultimate Frisbee that will certainly keep you active.

Organized sports and classes are not the only way to stay fit though. Individual activities like biking, walking and running are still available in the winter months — just embrace the rain!

If you are willing to venture into the mountains, there are plenty of outdoor winter activities like snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing that are fun and relatively close by.

It is important to find a physical activity that you enjoy doing because then you will be more motivated to do it.

Sick time

Finally, the winter months are synonymous with cold and flu season. While there is no surefire way to avoid getting a cold or the flu this winter, there are steps you can take to help you avoid getting sick.

If you haven’t gotten a flu shot already, it’s not too late. While this year’s flu shot might not be as effective as in previous years, it will still give you some protection and can help you recover more quickly should you get the flu.

Washing your hands with soap and water throughout the day will also help you avoid catching and spreading cold and flu viruses. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand gel. While it may seem like a simple thing, it is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick.

At home, wipe down counters, tables, and toys with disinfectant on a regular basis.

If you do get sick, stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the virus. Wait until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours before returning to your normal activities.

The winter months in the Northwest can be cold and dreary. But getting adequate exercise, avoiding cold and flu viruses as much as possible and taking vitamin D supplements will help you on your way to maintaining your health over the winter.