Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 20 2016

8 Primal Things to Appreciate about the Winter Season

By Mark Sisson

Inline_9_Primal_Things_to_Appreciate_about_the_Winter_SeasonWinter has come. That means different things to people based on their climate, but I’m of the opinion that winter is relative. You’d be right that the “cold” I face isn’t as objectively dangerous or unpleasant as the cold people in New York, Ottawa, Chicago, Warsaw, or Stockholm face. What’s cold to me in Malibu is short-sleeve weather in my native Maine—but it’s still cold to me today! “Feeling cold” is the defining characteristic.

Today, I’m going to tell you why you should appreciate and enjoy the cold season.

1. Feeling uncomfortable

Discomfort is a good thing. Our ancestors were frequently uncomfortable. Discomfort weeded out the unfit and made us who we are today. Those with a beneficial response to physical discomfort were more likely to pass on their genes. We are the product of those people, and exposing ourselves to uncomfortable situations and sensations will probably improve our health and overall resilience, too.

Cold weather provides an easy opportunity for feeling uncomfortable. You just go outside in light clothing and wait for the chill.

The best part, besides making you tougher? Feeling uncomfortable makes comfort feel even better.

2. Having the wilderness all to yourself

People hate the cold. Use the fact that people hate the cold to your advantage. Every time I go for a hike in sub 50° weather, I’m mostly alone. People are by and large wimps. It’s great.

If you’re worried about being outside in the cold (and believe me, the wilderness takes away about 10°!), don’t be. Once you get moving, you quickly forget the temperature. Your body revs up, and you start sweating. You’ll probably start peeling off articles of clothing. Whatever you do, don’t dress to the ambient temperature. That quickly becomes irrelevant.

3. The abundance of cold plunge opportunities

Everyone should cold plunge on a regular basis. I’ve been doing it every night for several years now, and I don’t think I could manage without them. It’d be pretty hard to give up:

  • The enhanced recovery. After a day of particularly vigorous training or playing, I’m ready to go the next day—as long as I cold plunge.
  • Reduced DOMS, even after a heavy day.
  • Less joint pain. My arthritis is a thing of the past, but the lingering, nagging pains I’d still suffer from time to time have completely disappeared.
  • Better sleep. A cold plunge at night drops my body temperature and gets me ready for bed.

Any body of water you encounter will be cold. Outdoor swimming pools usually have the heaters off in winter—jump in! The cold water in your shower will be far colder during the winter than at any other time—time to try a contrast shower! Heck, you can turn on a garden hose, strip down to your skivvies, and douse yourself in a reliably cold stream of water if it’s winter.

4. Improvements to your waistline

Winter is famously bad for the waistline. You bounce from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas, pounding various permutations of grain dust, sugar, and oil. Some evidence suggests that we gain more weight during the holidays than any other time of the year. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Cold exposure activates brown fat, the metabolically active adipose tissue that increases energy expenditure in order to keep you warm. Brown fat is like keeping a burner on low. It won’t heat you up enough to sweat, but it will provide a low level of adaptation to the cold and help you replace indoor heating, the use of which seems to parallel the increase in obesity.

According to one study, exposing yourself to cool weather (60°F) for just 2 hours a day for six weeks while wearing light clothing increases energy expenditure and reduces overall body fatness. That’s really easy to do. Leave the heat off. Skip the jacket when you go outside. Run shirtless through the woods. It’s not even that cold. 

My favorite way to expose myself to ambient cold is to go for shirtless walks or hikes. I don’t have any weight to lose, but it feels great—and I bet shirtless or tanktopped walks would do wonders for those of you who do have extra weight.

5. Hyggeing it up

The Nordic countries might get the most attention for their fantastic social outcomes, impressive education systems, and profound mythology, but I’m partial to the Danish concept of hygge.

Hygge doesn’t have a perfect corollary in English. It means wintry coziness, togetherness, group-based comfiness. Hygge is drinking hot cocoa around a fire. It’s snuggling in with a good book. It’s most similar to our idea of “holiday cheer,” only it lasts all year long.

I’m calling it now: Hygge can be huge.

6. Winter sports

I go snowboarding every year. But I have to travel to do it. It’s a pain, but I still make it happen. That’s how much I cherish skimming across the snow while standing on a board.

Winter sports are more than sheer fun. They’re exciting and a little dangerous (controlled danger is good for you).

People who live an Uber ride away from the slopes don’t know how good they have it. I’m really, truly jealous. Don’t squander your good fortune.

Snowball fights/angels/men/women

I don’t get snow much anymore. Living in Malibu, I’m lucky to see my breath. But growing up in New England, my buddies and I would get into the most epic snowball fights around. This was before helicopter parenting became a thing, back when you had the freedom to wage entire season-spanning campaigns against the kids across town.

Snowplay unlocks something deep within. Find it again.

7. Stews and soups

Man, there’s nothing like a big brothy bowl of falling-apart meat and hearty vegetables on a cold day. It’s a day-long endeavor that drip-drop rewards you with smells, anticipation, and, finally, sustenance.

That same meal might taste good enough in August, but it doesn’t hit you in the heart like it does in December. It satisfies your belly, not your soul.

8. Stokes purple sweet potatoes

You can get purple Okinawan sweet potatoes from the Asian markets—they’re okay, just not as good as eating them fresh from Hawaii—but my favorite purple potato as of late has been the Stokes purple sweet potato. It’s moister than the Okinawans and drier than your standard orange Garnet sweet potato. I like them two ways:

Bake at 400 until soft, mix with coconut oil, salt, and cinnamon.

Bake at 400 until soft, mix with 85% dark chocolate and sea salt.

Once November rolls around, I know they’ll be coming soon to Whole Foods.

That’s why I love cold weather. What about you? What are you appreciating about winter these days? Thanks for reading, everybody.

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40 thoughts on “8 Primal Things to Appreciate about the Winter Season”

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  1. I keep my house at 61 degrees all winter (50 at night) in a cold location. When I visit friends houses, they have their temps up to 74, I just about die. Sometimes I visit in shorts and t-shirt.

    1. Same here, and i summer, I freeze at others’ air conditioned houses.

  2. I love doing my 4 mile brisk walk in the winter. I don’t cover up much either, just one long sleeve shirt and gym shorts over my under armor coldgear leggings. No coat, no hat, nothing else. I’ve always been hot natured and it’s always seemed unnatural to me why some people like the heat, we sweat to prevent over heating. There is no biological mechanism is prevent over cooling, to put it simple, we’re an animal that does better in the cool rather the heat. But that’s just my opinion.

    1. Shivering (or alternatively, revved up brown fat mitochondrial activity) is the method that prevents over cooling

  3. Thanks for the positive outlook on winter Mark, I definitely need an attitude adjustment as I am happiest during the summer. I’m not as extreme as you, utilizing the principle of hormesis by doing the cold water plunging, but at the end of a hot shower I do turn the water to cold and stand under it for about 30 seconds. My wife will sometimes hear me reacting to that, she thinks I’m loco LOL.

    1. I take lukewarm showers. It’s less drying to the skin in the dry winter weather we have here. Seriously, we can have 2 inches of snow on the ground, but the dew point will often still be very low. The furnace further dries the indoor air, and I’m not a fan of humidifiers. I don’t finish my shower with cold water, but I do douse my freshly shampooed head in the cold water. Refreshing, and it seems like I don’t have to wash my hair as often.

  4. Winter is tough in the northwest particularly when it comes to sun exposure but again, I love your attitude of positivity Mark! Your outlook on discomfort such as this: “The best part, besides making you tougher? Feeling uncomfortable makes comfort feel even better.” are what makes me come back to your writing time and time again. Thank you!

    1. We;re moving to Florida next year because my wimp of a husband can’t handle Virginia winters. I grew up in New Jersey, so a Virginia winter is like a really long fall to me. I like cold so I’m going to miss it. 🙁

  5. Great post! I love winter. I live in Toronto, Canada, and can’t wait for the winter season. I love hiking and especially winter camping. No bugs. No sweating in the humidity. No bears (they are sleeping). And no one telling you to put your dog on a leash! Just the perfect freedom of hiking through a winter wonderland… slosh-sloshing along with your snowshoes. Eating steak on a stick cooked over the campfire, that you sit at for 3 hours in the dark, and manage to stay up until the wee hours of… 8:00pm! (It’s been dark so long it feels like 2 in the morning.) And then cozying up in your snowshelter, inside your -20C bag, cuddling for warmth with your furry and soft portable heater (who runs on dog food). Talk about a perfect day! And then you sleep for 12 hours because the sun won’t be up until 8:00am anyway! The only trick is ensuring that someone else wakes up before you to get the fire started again. 🙂

    Really, winter is the best time of year.

    1. Winter camping was always a great experience. Enjoy it while you’re young, later you may have to get up to pee 2-3 times per 12 hour night!

    2. Indeed. Winter camping is the best camping. The lack of bugs alone makes it worthwhile.

  6. Acadia National Park draws 3 million visitors per year and I avoid it like the plague in the summer. However I took a day off from work in November and had the park all to myself. It was great! Oh and by the way it was -10 this morning at my home here in Maine.

  7. Wind chill of -28 here last week in Nova Scotia, Canada.
    I hate the cold, but after watching some Wim Hof videos it seems to be helping.
    Surprised he wasn’t mentioned in the article.

  8. I really do love when the weather isn’t so favorable (to most people) and I have the trail all to myself! Can’t say I really have an interest in trying out a cold plunge over here in PA, but maybe I could suck it up and try a cold shower lol.

  9. Mark I gotta give you a little crap. We just went hiking this weekend in Saint Paul, MN at a brisk -16 air temp. Not a soul in site. If it was 45 we would be out in shorts and flip-flops!

    1. Anthony, I have no doubt. Northerners are robust folks. Have to say it’s been a while since I felt those kind of temps. Still, it’s awesome whenever you can have the trails to yourself. Grok on!

  10. this was fun to read! mark’s writings about the health benefits of cold have caused me embrace cold more, rather than the old wives’ tale that “not wearing a jacket makes you catch a cold.” Chinese parents and grandparents are the worst about nagging and insisting on LOTS of clothing in the winter, even here in mild California!

    for sweet potatoes, my favorite method is to wash them, then simply put them in the slow cooker! energy efficient, and nothing else needed. i can bake them overnight, and they are ready in the morning! or, in the afternoon, and have them ready for dinner!

  11. It is FREEZING here in PA right now. It was 13 degrees when I walked my little dog this am. I have a hard time with the cold, but I have to admit that I feel energized when I come in from a walk. And I appreciate the quiet of being outside in the winter. Mark mentioned having the wilderness to yourself. I’m not ready to go out in the wilderness in this weather, but I enjoy the quiet of having the walking paths in my neighborhood to myself on these freezing cold mornings. And I am loving the idea of Hygee!

  12. I live in Vail so I think I’ll take your advice and go slide down the mountain this afternoon!

  13. Winter is the hound season.
    That means spending every Friday evening around a fire with friends and sleeping in the open.
    It means being up well before dawn and hunting all day regardless of frost, fog and rain,,, climbing the hills and hunting over steep, thick, wet, uneven country.
    It means frustration, anticipation and high excitement, followed by a ton of hard work carrying out meat, antlers and recovering hounds.

    Seriously primal and tribal activity. When I was suffering from depression, my psychologist recommended that I do more of this.

    1. Major advantage to winter, here, NO SNAKES.

      No bushfires. No mozzies. No flies……

      But particularly, no snakes. When you are a dogman, and your four-footed mates depend much of their time in heavy cover or dens……

  14. Not to mention necessary primal movements like shoveling snow. I had a great upper body workout chipping down about 500 lbs of icicles with a tile scraper. It took me three hours. Primal soups and stews and fireside hygge after making near naked snow angels next to the hot tub.

  15. Yes there are great primal things about winter. Walking around the deserted lake where I only encountered one cross country skier. Following animal tracks and trying to find the fox den in fresh snow. shoveling the old fashioned way because the snow is so light and sparkling that you just have to be in it, free of the noise and fumes of a snowblower. Fresh cold air. Then curling up in the sunny bay window with a big pot of chicken and vegetables simmering on the stove. Thats living,
    Oh and watching the pounds melt away that I gained the fall.

  16. The solitude of winter is the best. Here in Seattle a lot of people hide once it falls below 45 degrees. We had a cold spell a while back with weather in the upper 20s and bio, was it ever nice to have the bike trail to myself! Such quiet and glorious solitude! Heck, today I even rode in sunshine! That’s a big deal here in the Pacific Northwest. I love cycling all year, but winter is the best. I don’t overdress, but do wear gloves and an earband over my ears to counter the windchill.

  17. I wish I could add some witty comment …
    But the truth is …
    I am a cold wimp 🙁

  18. So, continuing my beach sprints through winter and moving my indoor workouts to the beach would be just perfect–perfect! That was my plan all along. Plus, being the only one on the beach I can get away with being a topless girl?? maybe just maybe?

    Even playgrounds are deserted, sadly–but to our benetit–, come 40 degrees. And forget anyone thinking of showing up should it snow.

  19. I work out on the airport cargo ramp here in Hoth Dakota. The planes have to land, get unloaded, reloaded, and de-iced no matter what the weather is doing, so I’m out there supervising it. I don’t go inside until my whole crew is accounted for. I truly enjoy my job, because it’s essentially eight hours of play.
    Interestingly, I now find almost every building to be too warm for comfort, and a hot shower feels like torture. Guess I’m adapted.

  20. So, does this mean you’re spending the winter back in Maine?
    Love, your New Hampshire neighbor?!

  21. I had to smile when I opened this blog on “enjoying the winter season ” At the top of the page your are on the beach playing Frisbee. We have spent the last few winters in Florida. When it drops to minus Celsius and it is windy I start whining. LOL However I just said to my Husband we should buy some snow shoes and enjoy the winter. I prefer to be outside than on a treadmill any day. Good article.

  22. I live in southern Wisconsin and I love the clear crisp cold of winter. It’s invigorating. I lived in Delaware for 24 years and hated the damp cold that dominated the winters there.
    The one BIG disadvantage is that my glasses always fog/freeze up when I come inside. (Real glass glasses because they are much more durable than plastic lenses.) But I can live with that.

  23. Would cold sensitivity also be based on genetics? In high school gym class, if we went outside on a cool/damp day (50s?), I wouldn’t go back to the lockers for my coat because I didn’t think it was cold enough to need one. Everyone else thought that I must’ve been cold, but even though my arms got goosebumps and slightly bluish, once we got moving, it was fine. I even remember playing tennis in a hailstorm once. That was fun. 😉 (I’m half German, about 1/3 Irish, and the rest is a couple other central European nationalities including Polish)

  24. I am from Quebec city and I can’t imagine myself skipping a winter. No ice skating and snowshoeing ? Walking at night under the moon light under a full white scenery that reflect it. Building snow house, doing a good outdoor fire.

    Going to the winter Carnaval of Quebec city, my town.

    Going at the Scandinavian spa, alternating steam room and cold plunge , walking in swimming suite between the trees while the snow fall on me. Spending time by the fire between getting back in the sauna.

    Building snow house, sleeping in them.

    Crosscountry skiing.

    Feeling the crispy sound of the snow that crack under my feet at -13 F when my beard frost full of ice like a Santa and my breath rising in the air in a deep cloud. All that make me feel compassionate with the path of the human race that cross the ocean and survive in all those climates. That amazing accomplishment. I can imagine them surviving with nothing in that cold that make us so afraid.

  25. There’s also a peacefulness that comes from a snowed-in landscape that is like no other. I used to live in the Maine woods. Now I live in the UK and I’m lucky to see frost. I miss it.

  26. ‘People who live an Uber ride away from the slopes don’t know how good they have it. I’m really, truly jealous. Don’t squander your good fortune.’

    Wow. I live in Park City, Utah. 10 minutes from Park City/Canyons Resort and Deer Valley. 45 minutes from Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton. Have skiied twice this season.

    Your admonition will hopefully help me wake up a bit…I have a pass and there’s no reason why I can’t go for a couple hours every day of the week! On top of winter hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.

  27. I love this post to things to appreciate about the winter season is very good so i have to say that for the last few of hours i have been hooked by the impressive articles on this website. Keep up the wonderful work.

  28. Funny, when I was younger, I moved to New England in search of cold, outdoor pursuits. Now that I’m older, I’m not loving the cold as much. My acupuncture guys says we lose our “Yan” energy as we get older, so we don’t search for cold as much.
    Migration is primal, why fight it! 🙂 🙂