Winter Hiking – Exercise While Defeating Seasonal Affective Disorder

By: Vin Ciaramella, PTA (Georgetown Clinic)

Unfortunately for some, we couldn’t have snowless, fifty-something degree days all winter. Along with the landscape changing, our minds and bodies do too. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that due to less natural sunlight during the winter months, some people experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which may lead to symptoms such as depression, loss of interest and changes in weight. Although the occasional staying in with hot cocoa is unavoidable, we need to do what our bodies were made for – to move! A simple and inexpensive way to minimize SAD while benefiting from exercise is by hiking. Don’t think you have to drive hours away from your home to hike. In Essex County alone, there are nearly a dozen state parks and forests with trails to explore and get in a workout in the process.

Although hiking itself merely involves walking, some people may not be suitable to hike. Be honest with yourself and ask the following:

  • Do I have trouble walking?
  • Do I need an assistive device to get around?
  • Do I have any medical condition(s) that could interfere with my ability to hike?
  • Do I have a sound sense of direction and awareness?

Before one sets out to hike, it is important to plan ahead to ensure the safety of yourself and others around you. A simple checklist may involve:

  • Tell others where you plan on going and roughly what time you should be back.
  • Check the weather forecast.
  • Pack a small backpack with items such as water, snacks, extra socks, hat and gloves, extra shirt.
  • Wear a sturdy shoe / boot that is made for outdoor environments.
  • Dress in layers so you can easily shed a layer if you begin to sweat, or add a layer for extra warmth.
  • Use ski poles or a walking stick to provide extra points of contact with the ground, increasing stability.

Though it is not a guarantee you will get lost while in the woods, a simple map will help you out a lot when confronted with trails that split off. Free, printable maps of local parks can be found at:

As you begin to hike, don’t feel like you have to walk at a certain pace to ‘get it over with’. The key to hiking is to enjoy the experience at ones’ own pace while being completely aware of your surroundings and your body. You will begin to sweat fairly soon, so shed a layer because sweating excessively in the winter can lead to hypothermia. Ensure your muscles stay hydrated and avoid cramping by drinking plenty of water. Avoid fatigue by taking breaks when needed. Stretch along the way to decrease the tissue tension that is built up along the hike. Some simple stretches include:

  • Standing calf stretch: Stand in front of a tree with hands placed on it, extend one leg behind your body and gently lean forward, bending the opposite knee until a stretch is felt in the leg that is behind you. Hold for at least 30 seconds, 3-5 times per leg.
  • Standing hamstring stretch: Find a rock or stump that is about or slightly below waist level and place one leg onto it. Keeping that leg straight, gently lean your body and trunk forward until a stretch is felt in the back of the leg. Hold for at least 30 seconds, 3-5 times per leg.
  • Standing quadriceps stretch: While leaning onto a tree for support, grab an ankle and pull your foot towards your buttock until a stretch is felt in the front of your thigh. To add in a hip flexor stretch, extend your leg back further until a stretch is felt in the groin area. Hold for at least 30 seconds, 3-5 times per leg.

At some point you may experience the effects of seasonal affective disorder, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about it. Hiking outside provides more natural light than being indoors, has proven to reduce depression and a way to burn hundreds of calories in the process.  Plan ahead, be prepared and have fun this winter through hiking.


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    Click on the link below to download a copy of the Partners In Rehab, PT Newsletter to read at home, share with your friends & family, or to place in your office waiting area: PIR Winter 2017 Newsletter