Let’s go outside: The why, how and where of getting outdoors, whatever the weather

‘If you are exposed to green spaces and nature, your health and brain function benefit’

The Why

Scientifically speaking, it is a good idea to go outside during the winter months

As the days get shorter and Covid restrictions trundle on, it may feel as if now is the time to start hunkering down for winter, but it’s actually the ideal time to get moving. There are many benefits to getting outdoors over the winter months, not least bolstering your health in a fun – and free – way.

So is it, scientifically speaking, a good idea to get outside in the coming months? "Yes is the short answer," says medical virologist Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at University College Dublin.

“We know that many viruses tend to last longer in a colder environment – this is one of the reasons we store samples in the freezer when they come into the lab for testing – and also during winter we humans tend to gather indoors in congested settings in schools, at work, on public transport and socialising inside. The short distances between us in these environments can make it easier for respiratory viruses to travel from one person to another.”


What difference does it make if we go outside? “You still need to keep apart from other people,” says de Gascun. “But if you are outdoors, respiratory viruses get more diluted in air and they get dispersed by wind, so the risk of transmission would be lower than the risk indoors.”

Light up your body clock
Going outdoors during daylight – especially in the morning – can also do wonders for winding your body clock and keeping your immune system in synch. "Going outdoors in winter is critical," says Dr Annie Curtis, whose research at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) looks at how body-clock proteins in cells, organs and bodily systems tick and protect us from illness.

One of the best ways to keep all those tickers co-ordinated is to get a strong dose of daylight early in the morning, she explains. “Light is a biological signal, and we need outdoor light to reset our body clock each morning. If we don’t get that, things can start to go a bit haywire.”

Our immune systems generally have a 24-hour cycle, being on alert during the day when we are likely to encounter agents of disease or harm, and organising, filing and restoring at night. “If your body clock is not running to time, this can mean your immune system doesn’t work optimally,” says Curtis, a senior lecturer at RCSI’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences.

She recommends getting outside each morning to keep everything on track. “It should be part of your routine,” says Curtis, and adding exercise to the light can help too. “It doesn’t have to be the moment the sun gets above the horizon, and you don’t have to run 10k – you will still get the body-clock benefits if you walk the dog around the block before 11am.”

Go for green
During lockdown, Curtis and her family got out and explored their locality for new walks. "We live in a beautiful country, and many of our towns and cities have lots of green spaces and I think we should make more of it," she says.

Seeking out those green spaces and spending time in nature – including a garden – can help to alleviate stress and may even have a restorative effect on our mood and attention, says Dr Annalisa Setti, a lecturer at University College Cork's School of Applied Psychology.

Setti’s research focuses on how our environment affects health, wellbeing and particularly cognition, a group of mental functions that include our ability to learn new things, to process information and to pay attention.

“Large studies that look at where people live show that if you are exposed to green spaces and nature, your health and brain function tend to be better,” she says. “Research is also showing that spending a couple of hours a week out in nature is good for the mood and for attention, and there is even evidence to suggest that just a few minutes spent around nature can calm stress if you are feeling tired and cognitively overloaded.”

Physical activity itself is good for cognition, so even if you can’t hike in a forest or dig the garden, walking in towns and cities offers brain stimulation too, notes Setti. “You have to think about crossing roads, you might see other people around, and this can all benefit your cognition,” she says.

Indoor hacks
But what if, for whatever reason, you can't get outside at all? "Lab studies are showing that looking at pictures of green or natural settings can reduce stress and help restore cognitive functions," says Setti. "So when you do go on an enjoyable walk, maybe take some pictures of nature, then if you are stuck indoors you can look at those pictures to remind you of being there."

Curtis suggests that those who are housebound get close to a window in the morning, to reap as much light as they can. “Being by a window will increase the light levels vastly compared to being in the middle of a room,” she says. “And whether you get outdoors during the day or not, avoid looking at screens on phones, computers, tablets and TVs in the evening, because their blue light can interfere with your body clock and make it harder to get good quality sleep.”

The how

There’s a lot of truth in the mantra there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing

When dressing for the outdoors in winter you should think of an onion – you want to dress in a number of light layers that are easy to pop on and off with changing temperatures and levels of exertion.

While at first glance outdoor clothing might seem expensive you have to think of it as an investment. A couple of pieces of good quality of kit will make your time in the outdoors infinitely more enjoyable. If you choose wisely, the right kit can last you several years. And once you have the kit, the outdoors is free, unlike a monthly gym membership.

The most important investment you can make is a waterproof jacket. While a €20 jacket might seem appealing it will leave you sweating so much inside the jacket you will end up drenched anyway. It is important to choose a jacket that is light, waterproof and breathable. There are some great entry level options starting at about €100. But generally, you can can expect to pay €150-€200.

Footwear is another element worth careful consideration and investment. I would recommend going to an expert retailer in person to buy hiking boots or trail runners. It might cost you a little more than buying online, but it will save you from buying a pair of shoes that aren't right. Great Outdoors, Basecamp, 53 Degrees North, Adventure.ie, Landers and Call of the Wild are just a few of the specialist retailers around Ireland that offer a thorough footwear fitting service. Be prepared to spend between €100 and €200 on a good pair of trail running shoes or hiking boots.

Once you have those two big ticket items, there are plenty of great pieces of outdoor kit that don't cost a fortune. The opening of Decathlon in Ballymun (also available online) is a game changer when it comes to great value quality outdoor kit. It's a great place to pick up merino wool baselayers, midlayers, hiking poles, headtorches and lots more.

Lidl and Aldi also host hiking sales which can be a little hit and miss. However, you can often pick up mid layers, hats and gloves which will always come in handy as extra layers on colder days.

When it comes to dressing children for winter, follow the same principles when it comes to layering. Opt for lightweight layers that are breathable and will dry quickly should they become wet. A good set of waterproofs and a pair of wellies are essential if you want your children to enjoy their time in the outdoors. Price is a big consideration when choosing outdoor kit for kids as they seem to grow out of whatever you buy them in a blink of an eye. Thankfully, there are a couple of great brands offering quality kid’s gear at affordable prices.

Puddle Duck (www.puddleduck.ie) offers a range of fantastic overalls and wellies. Regatta (www.regatta.ie) also stocks a great range of waterproof jackets, pants and all-in-ones for kids that are breathable. The latter also stocks lightweight fleeces for kids.

Salewa Puez Aqua 3 Lightshell Jacket
This jacket offers seriously good bang for your buck. It is waterproof, breathable and very light. The hood can cinch in around the face for additional protection. This is a great option for those looking for something that can stand up to the Irish weather but at a great price too.
Available in men's and women's versions from adventure.ie

Columbia Outdry Ex Reign Jacket
This jacket is bulletproof when it comes to the Irish weather. Its also fully breathable and very durable.
Available from Columbia Sportwear, Dublin and Great Outdoors.

Rab Cirrus Flex Jacket
This breathable, yet cosy jacket comes with a water resistant outer and packs into its own pocket so it takes up minimal space in your backpack. You will find you live in this jacket all year round in Ireland.
Available in a men's and women's version from Great Outdoors, Dublin.

Rab Powerstretch Leggings
Don't let the hefty price tag put you off. These tights are one of the best investments I have ever made. Lined with a cosy fleece and a windproof outer, you will find yourself wearing them everywhere from the bike to your hike and even post winter sea swim. The durability of these tights cannot be beaten.
Available in men's and women's fit from Cotswold Outdoor and Great Outdoors, Dublin.

Forclaz Merino Wool Baselayer
Merino wool is a great layer to have next to skin as it will wick away sweat really efficiently, it's super breathable and it will keep you nice and cosy even when wet. The half zip will offer protection from the cold and ventilation when you get too warm.
Available in a men's and women's fit from Decathlon.

Quecha Mountain Walking Fleece
A couple of fleeces are a great addition to any kit box. Light, breathable, and quick drying they are perfect for a range of outdoor activities.
Available in men's and women's versions from Decathlon.

Kipsta Keepdry Gloves
I'm not a fan of spending a huge amount of money on gloves as I find I lose them far too easily. Instead I opt for cosy gloves at affordable prices. These gloves are fleece lined with a water repellent outer. They are great for hiking and biking as they aren't too bulky.
Available from Decathlon.

Petzl Tikka Hybrid Headtorch
This entry level headtorch is perfect for camping, night hikes and even doing odd jobs around the house! It has a hybrid battery system which means its compatible with both AA batteries and the supplied rechargeable battery.
Available from Great Outdoors, Dublin.

Puddle Ducks Demar Fleece Lined Wellies
These cosy fleece lined wellies will keep toes warm and dry on the coldest winter days. They also have the added bonus that they will grow with your kids feet. Simply remove the lining and your wellies will be a size bigger.

Regatta Kids Puddle IV Puddle Suit
€45 (currently on sale for €22.45)
This is a great suit for little adventurers– it's fully waterproof, breathable and durable too. The suit has a full length zip making it very easy to pop on and off.

The where 

If you are looking to stay active over the winter months here are a few ideas to get you out the door on a cold day.

Hike one of Ireland's waymarked trails
Cost: free

There are 42 waymarked trails across Ireland. These long-distance trails are fully marked, and offer a great challenge for those looking to up the ante. The trails range in distance with the Ulster Way taking in a whooping 1000km. Covering a more modest 40km, the Dublin Mountains Way is a great one to start with.

Take the plunge
Cost: free

The popularity of sea swimming has exploded this summer. And as a long- standing advocate of the activity, I am not surprised. Plunging into the cold waters of the sea, a lake or river helps to clear the head and leaves you feeling exhilarated. And there is no reason to stop once the summer comes to an end. Set yourself the goal of swimming once a week, and before you know it you will have swum through the entire winter. Plunging into cold water has been proved to have a host of physical and mental health benefits, including staving off the common cold.

Go everywhere by bike
Cost: free

Another trend to emerge from lockdown is cycling. But as winter looms the car can seem like the more appealing option. However, set yourself a small goal to begin with of using the bike to run two or three errands per week. Cargo bikes and panniers attached to your regular bike fit a surprising amount of groceries. As you take more trips by bike you will be surprised at how much your fitness and overall wellbeing will improve, and you will begin to notice it is often far more time-efficient (not to mention cost-efficient!) than the car. Just be sure to invest in a really good bike lock, lights and a high-vis vest as we head into the shorter days.

Surf's up
Cost: from €20

Many of us are unaware that we are living in one of the world's top winter surf destinations. Every year the world's top big-wave surfers flock to the west coast in search of monster breaks. And while surfing waves the size of houses isn't everyone's cup of tea, there is an abundance of fantastic beach breaks that offer safe surfing for beginners and intermediates. Surf schools across the country are open all year round, and offer all the equipment you need to stay cosy in the water, including winter wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves. Ben's Surf Clinic in Lahinch, Surfworld in Bundoran and Standhill Surf School  are highly recommended.

Hit the trails
Cost: from €30

Those who have really caught the cycling bug should try their hand at mountain biking. It offers the same adrenaline rush as skiing or snowboarding without needing to board a plane. And it's a great activity in bad weather. In fact, the muckier the trails the better! While mountain biking is still a relatively new sport in Ireland, its popularity is on the rise. Ireland is now home to a number of mountain biking centres around the country including Castlewellan (Down), Rostrevor (Down), Ballinastoe (Wicklow), Ticknock (Dublin), Ballyhoura (Limerick), and the Slieve Blooms (Offaly). All of these destinations offer parking, bike rental and fully marked trails.

http://www.mountainbikeni.com/ ; www.biking.ie ; http://www.trailriders.ie/ ; https://www.midirelandadventure.ie/product-category/mtb/

Conquer Ireland's highest peaks
Cost: free

One great way of keeping the winter blues at bay is to set yourself a challenge that runs over several weeks or even months. Winter is the perfect time to climb the highest peak in each of our four provinces: Carrauntoohil (Munster), Mweelrea (Connacht), Slieve Donard (Ulster) and Lugnaquilla (Leinster). If you are taking on the challenge be sure to familiarise yourself with the route in advance, check weather conditions before you go, and bring lots of warm layers, food and hydration with you.

Catch a sunrise
Cost: free

One benefit of the short days is the fact that you can watch the sunrise without a 5am wake-up call. Keep an eye out for a clear morning on the weather forecast, pack a flask of tea and some goodies and head for either the hills or the sea. As you watch the sun peek up above the horizon and slowly light up the surrounding landscape you will be reminded just how great life can be!

Moonlight adventure
Cost: free

The short days can limit our opportunity to get outdoors, but with the help of a good head-torch there is no reason not to head out after dark. The landscape looks stunning under the silver glow of the moon, and you are likely to have the entire route to yourself. Navigating in darkness is more difficult so be sure to head out with an experienced hiker who can navigate. And it goes without saying that good clothing and equipment is a must in the colder weather.