Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

How to thrive through a Colorado winter

~ By Laura Schaller, MS, PA-C, IPC/Senior Care of Colorado ~

Laura Schaller

Laura Schaller

We Coloradoans are all familiar with the typical winter season roller coaster: 50 degrees and sunny one day; 5 degrees and icy the next (and everything in between)! Learning to go with the flow and be prepared for anything can help you get through the short and sometimes inclement days while enjoying the pleasant ones when they arrive.

Staying active (at an appropriate level for your physical abilities, whatever that may be) is important year around. It keeps your body and your brain fit, promotes social interaction (as you’re often doing things with friends), and provides emotional and psychological benefits. Many of my clients who exercise enjoy walking outdoors. Sure, there are plenty of times throughout the Colorado winter when spending time outside is a perfectly suitable option. But it’s important to use good judgment and have a backup plan during the winter. Here are some pointers.

  • Go outside when you can. Take advantage of the days on which you can breathe in the fresh air and soak up a little sunshine, even if that means taking a slightly shorter jaunt than usual or even just sitting out in the yard for a little while. It can boost your mood and make you feel a little cheerier.
    Wear sunscreen if you’ll be out for an extended time. Anybody who’s come home from skiing with raccoon eyes can attest that the winter sun is powerful–even through cloud cover. Don’t get burnedÑprotect your nose, ears, and any exposed skin.
  • Dress for the elements. Layers are a good idea; they give you the freedom to add or remove as needed to keep yourself comfortable. And don’t forget the hat and gloves. While frostbite isn’t a real concern with the temperatures we typically experience here in the Denver area (unless you’re out for an extended period of time and the wind chill is extreme), you’ll still want to keep your fingers and ears warm.
  • Get a grip. Good footwear is critical, so be sure you have sturdy shoes or boots with soles that grip and which fit you well. If you use a device like a walker, be sure it’s got good tread.
  • Watch your step. If it’s snowed recently, try to stick to a route you know will have been shoveled. Keep in mind that icy spots can remain anywhere, and the dreaded “black ice” you can’t see can be especially treacherous. You definitely don’t want to risk a fall! If you’re not sure whether the ice has melted or your favorite path might be clear, perhaps it’s best to stay indoors for a few days.
  • See the light. It gets dark early and fast during the winter months. If you leave for a walk before dinner at 4:00 pm, it could be good and dark before you get home. So consider arranging your schedule to go out during the brightest, sunniest part of the day instead. If you think you might need it (even coming home from evening social events or activities), slip a little flashlight into your coat pocket to light up the way. It’s a good idea to be able to clearly see where you’re going, especially if there’s a chance that ice might be involved.

So what about those nasty weather days or long stretches of cold that force you to stay inside? Don’t fall into the trap of becoming a lazy couch potato or getting isolated and lonely. There are plenty of great options—it’s time to get creative and find ways to beat the winter blahs.

Keep moving. Shopping malls are a warm, dry, no-cost place to take a good walk. If you go during the weekdays, when most people are at work, you’ll have plenty of room to take a few laps past the shops. Some malls even have exercise routes mapped out. Senior centers offer a wide range of exercise options (like indoor tracks and water aerobicsÑespecially good for arthritic joints) as well as social activities. And if you live in an assisted living or retirement community, chances are there are a variety of options, such as seated exercise classes and yoga, available to you.

Stay social. It’s too easy to retreat into an introverted, isolated mode during dark winter months. So you must make a deliberate, conscious effort to stay in touch with friends and family. Don’t be shy about asking people to come and visit, write you letters, or even Skype if you’re technically inclined. Take part in social events or classes at your retirement community or senior center. Or find a volunteer jobÑhelping others always has a way of warming the heart and making you feel good, especially around the holiday season.

Exercise your mind. Instead of watching endless hours of mindless television, try learning something new to expand your horizons, or doing activities that keep your brain fit. Educational radio (I personally love Science Fridays on National Public Radio), puzzles like crossword and Sudoku, and lively conversation with groups like Active Minds can all be stimulating and enriching.

Leave the car in the garage. When the roads are bad, it’s probably wise not to drive. Even small fender-benders can disrupt your life, and worse accidents can be tragic. Snow days give you a good excuse to stay cuddled in at home and open a can of soup. Or use a grocery or restaurant delivery service if you need provisions. If you must go somewhere in bad weather, consider calling a friend, a cab, or a service like Access-a-Ride.

Get a lift. Keep in mind that, in inclement weather, even getting to and from a vehicle can be daunting. If you have any concerns about falling, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. A transfer wheelchair is a nice thing to have when you need it; your healthcare provider can help you get one.

You don’t have to shovel snow. For some reason, there are people who don’t normally exercise but still stubbornly insist on shoveling their walks. Depending on the amount of snow, this can be a deceptively difficult, vigorous activity that’s extremely taxing on your body. If you are fit, strong, and exercise regularly, okay. Follow my tips above for being outside, and go for it. Just be sure to take it easy and listen to your body. Stop if you feel tired and rest. If you have not been active recently or have cardiovascular, musculoskeletal (e.g., bad back) or other health problems, just don’t do it. It’s not work the risk. There are plenty of neighborhood kids with shovels and snow removal services.

New friends for Fido. Pets can provide wonderful companionship when you’re cooped up indoors. And they might also rely on you to take them outside for walks. If your fair-weather routine includes walking the dog, it might be a good idea to have the phone number of a dog walking service or neighbor handy to help out as needed.

Don’t be sad! It’s normal for folks to occasionally feel a little blue during the winter. But if you ever experience an overwhelming sense of sadness or melancholy that you just can’t seem to shake, please make an appointment and have a conversation with your doctor, physician assistant, or other healthcare provider. You may be experiencing clinical depression, which is definitely not normal and not something you have to endure. There are things we can do to help.

Our Colorado winters can be a wonderful time of year. So enjoy the sunshine when you can, stay safe and warm, and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help when you need it!

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