Health experts offer advice on beating the winter blahs
If the next few days are any indication, this winter will be a light-jacket affair. Forecasters nationwide are predicting above-average temperatures. But this is Western Pennsylvania, where the typical winter is an unappealing blend of ice, gray skies and depressingly short days. To mark this week's official start of winter, we asked health and medical experts to share tips to make the best of the dark days ahead.
Embrace the weather. Dress warmly in layers, stay well hydrated and explore our winter landscapes. Hike, walk, take up a new sport like cross-country skiing, or snow shoeing (with your doctor's OK if you have any medical problems). Regular exercise not only improves sleep and boosts mood, but may decrease your risk of getting colds. Being outdoors also decreases your risk of exposure to other people's viruses.
— Dr. Beth Prairie
Gynecologist, Midlife Women's Associates, Allegheny Health Network
Plan coping strategies
In the cold, dark months, some of us, especially women, are at risk for the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder. This can lead to feelings of sadness, increased anxiety, lowered energy, increased appetite and sleep and social isolation. Holiday expectations are so great that some people may feel stress before the holidays, and let down afterwards. Strategies to cope during these months are important to improve well-being, energy and outlook. Plan something to look forward to. Get out of the house: take a brisk walk in the morning, meet a friend for a meal or treat yourself to something. Try to schedule activities during the day — even sitting by a big window during periods of more light can be beneficial.
— Dr. Alicia Kaplan
Psychiatrist, Allegheny Health Network
Create your own home gym
During the winter months, it is tough to get motivated to move; all those fun outdoor activities we enjoy in the summer are put on hold. Also, there is a greater tendency to go home after work and skip the gym when snow starts covering the roads. Don't let the cold weather hold you back, especially during the holidays when we tend to eat more treats. If you can't make it to the gym, try making some exercise circuits at home. Combining movements like pushups, sit-ups, squats and lunges gets the heart rate up and builds muscle for metabolic currency.
—Dr. Victor Prisk
Orthopaedic surgeon, Allegheny Health Network
Look out for your heart
Each winter, we see a spike in heart disease complications, including heart attacks. The cold weather causes increased stress on the heart with constriction of heart blood vessels and a heightened ability for the blood to clot.
Do your best to avoid overeating and consider adopting a heart healthy, whole-foods, plant-based diet that is rich in vegetables, whole grains and fruits, and avoid animal products.
If getting in shape is part of your New Year's resolution, start the routine gradually to avoid excess stress on your body and heart. Remember, exercise is good for optimal heart health long term, but overexertion before your body is ready to handle the work can be harmful, especially in cold weather.
Avoid snow shoveling if you have heart disease or have risk factors for heart disease. The straining and cold weather can trigger a heart attack.
— Dr. John P. Girod
Co-Director Cardiac Catheterization Lab, St. Clair Hospital, Mt. Lebanon
Bundle up to avoid frostbite
Wear proper clothing to guard against the cold. Frostbite occurs when the skin and the outer tissues become frozen due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The condition is more prevalent on the extremities like fingers and toes as well as the nose and ears. The damaged tissue/skin may become pale, gray and/or blistered. The person may complain that his/her skin burns or has become numb. If this occurs, make sure to bring the person inside and place the frostbitten parts in warm, not hot, water.
If your children enjoy sledding outdoors, make sure they are appropriately clothed, in layers, with mittens, gloves and a hat. Children should also wear a helmet for safety.
Sledding feet first or sitting up, instead of lying down head-first, may prevent potential head injuries. Sled slopes need to be free of obstructions like trees or fences, covered in snow, not, ice, and not too steep.
— Dr. Heather Rosen
Medical Director, UPMC Urgent Care at North Huntingdon
Beware of the sun
Although winters in Pittsburgh seem to be unendingly cold and dark, remember that sun protection should remain a part of your daily routine. Sun damage can still occur in the winter, and you should continue to apply sunscreen to exposed skin on the face, neck and hands. This is particularly important when engaging in outdoor sports in which snow may reflect ultraviolet rays upon the face. Sun protection in this case is best achieved through the use of a moisturizer, with an SPF of 30 or higher.
The cold air and low humidity indoors and outdoors can cause the skin to become very dry. This can cause skin, particularly on the hands, to become painful and cracked. It also will result in itchy skin. The best way to combat this is through the regular use of emollients or moisturizers. Simple moisturizing creams from the drugstore can be applied soon after bathing.
— Dr. Laura Korb Ferris
Associate Professor of Dermatology, University of Pittsburgh
avoid the winter blahs
Set reasonable limits over the holidays — don't overextend yourself and don't over indulge. Plan casual down time at home — maybe pick a movie or TV show, and reserve that time to watch with your family. Plan a game night, or cook a simple meal together. It's important to reserve that time — if you don't set that time aside for relaxing with family, it will slide right past you.
— Dr. Bruce A. Wright
Chair, Psychiatry Section, St. Clair Hospital
Get a flu shot
Influenza immunization, coupled with frequent hand-washing and staying home when sick, is the single best way to avoid getting and spreading the flu. The flu is serious and kills thousands of people every year. The flu vaccine has improved in recent years, with versions that protect against the four strains most likely to be circulating, high-dose versions that better protect the elderly and egg-free versions for those with egg allergies. I get the flu vaccine every year, and I make sure my entire family is immunized as well.
— Dr. David A. Nace
M.D., M.P.H., director of long term care and flu programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and chief medical officer of UPMC Senior Communities
At parties, don't focus on food
The holiday season is a wonderful time to celebrate with family and friends, but the festivities can often lead to overindulgence and weight gain. You can enjoy your favorite seasonal foods, but it's important to strike a balance between healthy fare and indulgent treats. Don't deprive yourself of family-favorite dishes, but keep in mind that they are often high in calories, fat and sugar. To get the maximum pleasure out of each bite, try eating slowly and remember to take breaks during meals. This will help you combat the urge to go back for seconds or thirds.
If you are faced with a party buffet, survey the food before filling your plate. Load up on high-protein and low-fat options and add just a reasonable dab of the fatty dips and desserts. Shrimp, veggie trays and fruits are your friends. Enjoy a holiday drink, but do so in moderation. Those calories add up — a 5 ounce glass of wine alone has about 125 calories! Try a club soda and lime after your favorite cocktail to take you through the rest of the night. Most importantly, remember that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones. So instead of fixating on the food, try to focus your energy on having fun with your friends and family.
— Anna Ardine
Clinical Nutrition Manager, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC
Staying healthy and active during the winter months can be challenging with the change in weather and decrease in daylight. Who wants to go outside when it's pitch-black and freezing? Motivation to keep active during this time is usually at an all-time low with my clients and myself, too. The way I try and keep myself on the right track is by making sure I am getting enough shut eye! The average person needs between 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
A majority of my clients will struggle to get 4-5 hours of sleep, and even less during the holidays. I also work with athletes who can need even more sleep each night to fully recovery for the next training bout. Sleep is very important in that not enough can leave your body vulnerable to illness. It also can have a negative impact on your food and activity choices for the day. Research has shown when we are running low on Zs we tend to over-consume high-calorie, high-carbohydrate food items. A candy bar and pop from the vending machine will sound a lot more appetizing than an apple and a handful of almonds after a 20-minute walk. One strategy I started to use to grab some more shut eye was putting away my phone or computer an hour before bed. Once I removed the distraction of the “screening scroll” and bright screen, I was able to go to bed earlier and worry less about mindlessly reading Facebook's status updates.
Remember, sleep is the fuel that recharges your batteries. Think of yourself as a high performance sports car that needs to be recharged with sleep, fueled up with balanced meals, and taken around for spin to work the engine for life-long well-being!
— Edith Nault
Clinical dietitian with Excela Health Well Being Center
Winter is coming and with it, the potential for slips, trips, and falls. Slip and fall accidents can easily happen to anyone. All it takes is one wrong step for a person to lose their balance and fall. Unfortunately, slip and fall accidents commonly result in some type of injury, whether it's just a scrape or a bruise, or something more serious like a broken bone. Help yourself and others stay safe this winter by keeping these tips in mind:
Wear proper footwear — footwear with waffled, ridged, or heavy treads increase traction. They may not be the most stylish or fashionable footwear you own, but they'll help keep you safe when the sidewalks are slick.
Walk slowly — a patch of ice on the ground can go unnoticed until it's too late. This is particularly true if you're walking in a parking lot that's paved with blacktop or if it has poor lighting.
Keep your sidewalks clear and salted — be sure you have the proper tools to maintain your sidewalks. A good snow shovel and salt/ice melt are essentials you should have throughout the winter months. Stay on top of clearing and salting your sidewalks and driveways.
— David Byers
Manager of Safety and Occupational Health for Excela Health