-- Let's face it: Unless you're a ski bum, winter's frigid temps and shorter days can really bring on the blues. "The cold and gray present significant challenges to all of us," says Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor of movement sciences at Columbia University in New York City. But the weather outside isn't the only reason you may feel down in the dumps. Here are some common bad habits that have a tendency to creep up every time the temperature starts to drop. Being proactive before the season hits its stride, says Garber, can set you up for a happier and healthier winter.
Exercise is a potent stress-reducer, and research suggests that it may even help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. But even the most devoted runner or gym-goer can lose motivation when the days get short, cold, and gray, and lose the mental health boost along with it. "It's so easy to talk yourself out of it," says Garber. So how to keep up with the recommended 30 minutes of activity, five days per week? Garber suggests scheduling exercise, as you would for a salon or doctor appointment, and sticking to it with the help of a group fitness agreement with friends or family. Yoga can also ease your mind and get your body moving in a low-key group setting. "We know it improves depression and anxiety," says Michelle Dossett, MD, physician and researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Cooping yourself up inside
Not much beats Netflix and a warm blanket on a chilly day, but holing up indoors can have consequences. "In the winter, a lot of people do start to feel depressed," says Garber. "Getting outside in the cold weather helps people feel better." Daylight is ideal, as sunshine boosts mood and levels of depression-fighting vitamin D, but some studies suggest that even going outside in the dark can shift your negative outlook, Garber says. Your best bet: Don't get out of the habit of spending time outside as summer fades into fall and winter. "If you start before it gets too cold, you sort of adjust gradually to that temperature," Garber says.
Not applying sunscreen
If you do get outside regularly in the colder months, that's great—just don't forget that the sun is always there, lest you wind up with a painfully sunburned face. "Even on a cloudy day, you can still get a significant degree of sun exposure," says Rajani Katta, MD, professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine. Skiers should be particularly vigilant about applying sunscreen. "Whenever there's snow, there's an opportunity for the sunlight to reflect back onto your skin," Dr. Katta says. For the rest of us who may forget to slather on sunblock on gray, wintry days, Katta suggests keeping a bottle next to the toothpaste or, if you're a parent, beside your child's backpack. "Put it somewhere where you're just not going to be able to avoid seeing it," says Dr. Katta. While sunblock does cut back on the skin's ability to create vitamin D, you only need about three weekly 10- to 15-minute bursts of sunlight exposure to generate enough.
It's one thing to cancel dinner plans when the roads are slick; it's another to coop up alone by default. "People are usually isolated because they're feeling down in the dumps anyway, and they don't want to be the low light in the group," says Dr. Dossett. But research shows that socializing makes you happier—group memberships ward off depression, and social interactions are part of what makes exercise so uplifting. If solo jogging is your thing, try running with a group once a week. Or, as Dr. Dossett suggests, find an activity that both you and a friend enjoy, whether it's woodworking class or indie movies, and make time for it together at least once per month.
Not trying new things
When the weather's warm, you may be more apt to venture outside your comfort zone with a trip to a vegan restaurant or a rock climbing class. The tendency to become isolated makes it easy to fall into a rut. Suddenly, it's February, and you've convinced yourself that it's not worth trying anything new until spring. To spark a change of perspective, take up meditation, suggests Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. "People learn how to pay attention to their sensory experiences and then respond," says Dr. Wells. In other words, you'll begin to recognize limiting thoughts, and stop them in their tracks.
A healthy routine hinges on sleep no matter the time of year; experts recommend 7 to 8 hours a night. On the other hand, curling up in your cozy bed for marathon sleep sessions can do you more harm than good. Excessive sleep raises risk for depression, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Sleep. What's more, additional research has linked sleeping more than 8 hours a night to a higher risk of stroke, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.
Overindulging in comfort foods
"Sometimes food is to comfort us, to make us feel warm," says Lisa Sasson, RD, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University. While tucking into starchy casseroles can make winter feel a little less bleak, too much can leave you feeling sluggish, says Sasson. Your body treats refined carbohydrates—like highly processed grains—as if they're sugars, quickly digesting and absorbing them. Your blood sugar will spike, followed by an energy crash when your body secretes insulin to process that excess glucose. Try replacing fatigue-causing carbs with healthier alternatives, such as whole wheat pasta, which has far more protein and fiber than its refined, white counterpart. And you can still have those warming dishes, like soups and stews filled with low-calorie, highly nutritious veggies, says Sasson.
Drinking too much
What would a holiday party be without a mug of spiked cider? Or a cup of eggnog? Or a glass of wine? Or a flute of champagne? Control yourself: Binge drinking can weaken your immune system, according to a 2015 study from the University of Maryland (not to mention all the other negative health effects of drinking too much). A runny nose, sore throat, and body aches (or worse) are sure to leave you feeling miserable, so add alcohol moderation to your cold-and-flu prevention checklist, right along with washing your hands and getting enough sleep.
Taking long, hot showers
On chilly mornings and sub-zero nights, there's a temptation to indulge in long, steamy showers—warming up can feel next to impossible otherwise. Despite the immediate satisfaction, however, super-hot water can dry out and damage your skin, leaving you itchy, scaly, and uncomfortable, Dr. Katta says. Stick with lukewarm water instead, and when you get out of the shower, pat gently with a towel before applying moisturizer while your skin is still damp. This ensures that water won't evaporate from your skin—and take moisture with it, Dr. Katta says.
Not moisturizing enough
Even if you avoid hot showers, you'll almost certainly wind up with dry, itchy skin if you don't moisturize. Between the icy conditions outside, desert-like air inside, and requisite hand-washing to ward off cold and flu germs, your skin is under attack from damaging, drying elements throughout the winter. Rather than hydrating your skin with lotions, which tend to be high in water and fail to really lock moisture into skin, try a cream or ointment, suggests Dr. Katta. Find a product with a consistency that you like, and apply often to damp skin, including after showering, washing your hands, and using hand sanitizer, she advises.
This article originally appeared on Health.com.