Canada’s coldest season means putting more effort into our health and safety. Here’s how to survive — and thrive through — the winter
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Up to three per cent of Ontarians are affected by SAD and another 15 per cent experience a milder form known as the “winter blues”. Studies suggest SAD is related to the decrease in daylight, triggering a decrease in the serotonin our bodies use to regulate sleep, mood and appetite. Symptoms include:
- feeling tired and depressed;
- difficulty concentrating;
- loss of appetite;
- decreased interest in activities you usually enjoy.
But you don’t need to suffer with SAD until spring. Dr. Jen-Chyang Lai, a psychiatrist at Mackenzie Health, says simple treatments, including:
- regular exercise;
- a balanced diet;
- enough sleep;
- exposure to natural light, to maintain health and stave off symptoms.
And while it is normal for anyone to feel a bit down some days, Dr. Lai stresses that if symptoms persist, speak to your family and/or your family physician. “The doctor may suggest some things you can do or refer you for specialized services.”
Easy ways to prevent a fall
For those with mobility issues, icy conditions and cold weather increase the risk of slips or falls that can cause serious injuries and even long-term disability. Darker winter days, adds Michelle Cleland, a Registered Nurse Specialist in gerontology at Mackenzie Health, are also a factor. “As we age, we also don’t discern light changes as well anymore,” says Cleland, “and part of our balance is related to vision.”
To stay safe, Cleland advises checking your home to ensure it’s well-lit inside and out. Salt and clear walkways of snow for better traction underfoot (or contact a community agency or enlist a friend or neighbour if you are not well enough to do this yourself).
Finally, don’t forget to exercise. “It’s good for balance, it reduces pain, helps us sleep better, improves our appetite, keeps our joints limber and builds muscle strength — all of which can prevent a fall.”
Protect yourself and others
Cold and flu viruses spread quickly through coughing, sneezing and touching contaminated surfaces like doorknobs or unwashed hands. While for many of us, these viruses are merely a nuisance, Annie Seto-Shoo, senior Public Health Inspector with the Region of York, says seniors, pregnant women and those with chronic health concerns may be at risk for a serious complication.
Here’s how to reduce the spread:
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
- Cough and sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue (and throw away the tissue after each use);
- Clean and disinfect common touch areas such as doorknobs, light switches and toys;
- Stay at home if you are sick;
- Get your flu shot every year.
“Many infection prevention practices are basic common sense,” says Seto-Choo. “But it’s these easy things that we sometimes forget.”
Staying active: it all adds up
“Definitely don’t hibernate,” says York Region Public Health Nurse Carol Karner. “Staying active, even in the colder months, to achieve the recommendations for daily activity is so important.”
Indeed, experts say adults aged 18 to 64 should aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every week. For children, the goal is 60 minutes every day even in the dead of winter. “Regular physical activity helps prevent diseases and chronic illnesses,” says Karner, “plus it builds muscle strength and allows us to continue living independently.”
If you’re a fan of winter, choose your activity — think skiing, skating, hiking or even building a snowman — and bring along a friend for healthy company. If the wind chill is unbearable, consider walking in the mall or doing a yoga video. Or mix it up with a round of bowling or a swim at your local rec centre. Any physical activity, reminds Karner, helps us meet our daily goals and even short periods of movement add up to better health.
Information, tips and resources on a wide range of health, wellness and safety topics are available at mackenziehealth.ca.
– Sheena Campbell