Oprah Quarterly featured Outdoor Afro National Program Director Chaya Harris (CLICK HERE TO READ FULL REPORT) in its January 2023 winter coverage, asking the Boston-based outdoorswoman about the health implications of simply walking in cold weather. The right source to quiz, the former public school educator and now nature traveler’s tally of winter excursions include New England ice climbing, ice skating, skiing, cross-country skiing, and snow tubing. In 2022, she and Outdoor Afro Founder and CEO Rue Mapp took an 18-day Hurtigruten Expeditions voyage together to Antarctica. So, Harris is pretty savvy on penguin diction, too. Coupled with her Oprah Quarterly commentary, Harris shares these good-to-know points and health benefits to this hibernal activity:
QUESTION: CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS ONE GAINS FROM WALKING OUTDOORS?
HARRIS: Walking or hiking is such a popular Outdoor Afro nature activity for our networks across the nation. Specifically because of the many health benefits, including muscle development, building a steadier heart rate, and more time outdoors to address any weight concerns we might have. It’s an opportunity to connect our minds and body in a simple fashion. Taking longer strides and engaging the core are easy actions to increase range of motion, flexibility, and coordination while walking in nature as well.
QUESTION: HOW DOES WALKING IN NATURE, OR JUST THE OUTDOORS, IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH?
HARRIS: It really gives space for us to clear our minds — to re-access daily tasks or challenges from a newer (sometimes creative) perspective. There is this notion of seasonal affective disorder that can make us depressed or anxious as the year changes. Walking can become an answer to discovering peace in these times, becoming an effective source for decompressing mentally from major life shifts. I personally find it interesting how setting goals while walking — like a 15-minute neighborhood stroll — can turn into this serotonin accomplishment boost.
QUESTION: HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO WALK IN NATURE FOR OVERALL WELL BEING?
HARRIS: In these semi-COVID times, it’s valuable. Working remotely has truly become commonplace for a lot of people, families, and communities. Walking as a form of exercise, self-care, or socializing is vital to adjusting during the pandemic. It’s a rewarding outlet worth taking advantage of for our sanity. It certainly grounds me and allows me to release any tension or stress I’m feeling. Walking equally reminds me of the small wonders in life — the birds chirping or flowers blooming — and making the most of each moment in nature. Dedicating time to walk in my neighborhood also gives me gratitude that I’m able to stay home and appreciate the outdoors in my area.
QUESTION: ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC BENEFITS ONE GETS FROM WALKING IN WINTER DUE TO THE COLD WEATHER OR SCENERY?
HARRIS: For one thing: There’s no mosquitos or other creatures that may typically cause fear or anxiety. I find the winter months as much calmer with quieter locations in nature. Winter walking is easier on the joints if you’re in a snowy region. I love that soft crunch under my feet. With the right layers, you can get a fairly low-impact workout.
QUESTION: CAN YOU SHARE TIPS FOR MAKING WALKING A DAILY ROUTINE?
HARRIS: Literally, write down “walking today” on a Post-it Note. Schedule time in your smartphone. Seriously, make walking part of your personal or work schedule. Don’t be afraid to scout a neighbor or colleague to become your walking buddy. It gives the experience a social element. If no one is available, use the opportunity to listen to your favorite podcast or a new album while in route. Don’t forget: Focus on the enjoyment part of walking. Turn it into a daily routine or an award system to self.
QUESTION: ANY PRACTICAL TIPS OR WALKING-IN-WINTER STRATEGIES TO KEEP IN MIND, SAFETY ISSUES, WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE CLIMATE?
HARRIS: Shop fun, comfortable, and durable footwear. Ones so snug you welcome exploring more in nature or your neighborhood. Layering up in the wintertime is high priority in cold weather. Have your base layer (not cotton if you want to keep sweat away), then your insulating layer (fleece options) and outdoor layer (puffy coat or down jacket). If it’s raining, consider a hard shell jacket. I like full zip-ups as a form of extra protection. Plus, they’re easier to pack up.
QUESTION: ANYTHING ONE CAN DO TO ENHANCE THEIR EXPERIENCE WALKING OUTDOORS/IN NATURE?
HARRIS: Pair walking with other nature activities you enjoy. For instance, bird watching, journaling, or photographing wildlife. Also, try walking throughout the four seasons to keep your scenery in nature interesting and with a fresh perspective on life.
ABOUT OUTDOOR AFRO: Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. What started as a kitchen table blog by Founder and CEO Rue Mapp in 2009 has since grown into a cutting-edge nationwide network with 100-plus volunteer leaders in 60 cities. “Where Black people and nature meet,” Outdoor Afro reconnects Black people with the outdoors through outdoor education, recreation, and conservation. Follow us @outdoorafro on social.