How to Stay Healthy in the Dark Days of Winter

You might feel like curling up and staying inside until winter is over. Maria Evseyeva/Shutterstock

Winter isn't the easiest season to stay healthy. Darkness comes early, inspiring us to curl up on the couch instead of heading out to exercise. It's often bitterly cold, plus you have to battle the countless cold and flu germs doing their best to make you sick. No wonder so many people want to stay under the covers until spring.

Even though your body is telling you to hibernate, there are things you can do to battle the challenges of cold, dark winter days. Here are several simple ways to stay healthy this winter.

Take advantage of daylight

woman on computer in front of large window
Spend as much time in the daylight as you can. g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Winter days are shorter with a much smaller window of natural light. "The [decrease] in daylight can throw off a lot of things including socialization and emotional rhythm," Sanam Hafeez, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, tells NPR. Try to get as much exposure to the sun as you can, whether that means sitting by the window or taking a walk at lunchtime. Winter is a great time to take a vacation in a sun-drenched locale, if you have the time and the resources.

Some people find that light therapy in the form of a light box can help when the hours of natural daylight just aren't enough. This phototherapy seems to be especially helpful for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression associated with lack of light during the winter months.

If the long, dark evenings just seem to drag on, then go to bed earlier. That lets you take advantage of the light in the morning and get more sleep, Hafeez suggests.

Be active

man and woman walking dog in snow
Don't let cold weather keep you from being active. Evgeny Bakharev/Shutterstock

It's harder to exercise when it's cold outside. If you're accustomed to walking, biking or running in the evenings, your plans have to change when it gets dark by late afternoon. See if you can switch your outdoor exercise routine to earlier in the day so you can still take advantage of daylight and get all the benefits of being outdoors.

If that won't work, try to stay active in the evenings. Join a class or make a standing gym or mall-walking date with a friend so you can keep each other motivated.

And remember, you don't have to get all your exercise in at once. You can sneak in 10 minutes here and there by running up and down your steps at home or just doing a few laps around your block when you have time. Put on some music and dance in your living room or pace while talking on the phone. It all adds up and will make you feel better.

Eat healthy

woman eating salad
It can be tempting to fill up on comfort foods, but it's smarter to eat healthy in the winter. Maksym Azovtsev/Shutterstock

It can be tempting to turn to comfort foods when you're holed up inside on a cold night. But it's important to give your body healthy fuel so you're not just downing empty calories and unnecessary fat. Eat a well-rounded diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy whole grains, proteins and low-fat dairy.

We tend to eat more in winter, which means we also tend to pack on extra pounds. Instead of just eating a lot of food, add healthy filling foods, like protein, to your diet. It also can help to eat smaller portions throughout the day and making lunch your biggest meal. In one study, people who ate their largest meal at lunch lost an average of three pounds versus those whose largest meal was at dinner.

Fight germs

washing hands with soap and water
Wash your hands before handling food to help spread the contamination of salmonella. (Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Because we tend to stay indoors more in winter, cold and flu viruses are easily spread from person to person. All that sneezing and coughing and nose blowing makes the indoors a breeding ground for germs. All you have to do is touch a doorknob or shake a hand and you're sick.

Do your best to stay healthy with these germ-avoiding tips:

Wash your hands. You pick up viruses everywhere and they live on your hands, so wash your hands and do it often. The best recipe is regular soap and water, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But if that's not an option, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Keep your hands away from your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands. That's one way viruses can get into your body.

Get the flu shot. It's no guarantee, but getting the flu vaccine lowers your chances of coming down with the flu. For example, getting the vaccine last year resulted in a 34 percent lower risk of coming down with the flu.

Avoid sick people. It seems like a no-brainer but if someone around you is sick, then keep your distance. Respiratory viruses spread very easily through the air, so keep at least six feet between you and the sneezing, sniffling, coughing person, suggests Consumer Reports.