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Make the Most of Winter

Body+Soul, January/February 2007

A cosmopolitan jet-setter, former Fulbright Scholar, and management consultant, Julie Lindahl never pictured herself raising young twins on a remote Nordic island in the dead of winter. But that was before she fell in love with a Swede, moved to a small rustic cottage off the coast of Sweden, and began adopting Scandinavian culture and traditions. This bold experiment transformed Lindahl's life beyond what she ever imagined. "In America, we think of spring, not winter, as the time to open ourselves up and reconnect with nature," says Lindahl, 40, author of "On My Swedish Island," a memoir of her experiences. "But here in Scandinavia, every season is thought of as an opportunity to start a process of personal renewal -- winter included.

Now in her seventh year on the island, Lindahl, with the help of her husband, Claes, has come to fully understand the Scandinavian concept of "det goda livet," or "the good life." It means living each day connected to nature, regardless of the season or the weather. After all, says Lindahl, cold weather can make for an incredible wake-up call. "It's a huge opportunity to find your natural rhythm and your connection to the outdoors," she says -- even when the pipes freeze and the nearest supermarket is a 45-minute sled ride away.

What do Lindahl and other cold-weather aficionados have to say about braving the winter? Quit hiding under the covers and start embracing it. If you greet the season's challenges, you'll do better than survive this otherwise harshest, darkest time of year. You'll thrive -- and come to enjoy all the opportunities that only this season brings.

Experience the Outdoors
"If you have to endure such a long, dark winter as we do in Scandinavia, you become more aware of the contrasts of life," says renowned Arctic explorer Mikael Strandberg, "especially when it comes to being outside." Strandberg and Lindahl both subscribe to the concept of "friluftsliv" (Swedish for "free-time outdoor life"), an essential component of the Scandinavian understanding of well-being. According to Lindahl, it translates as a deep love and appreciation of the outdoors, one that runs through all sectors of Scandinavian society. (Even the queen of Norway, an avid outdoorswoman, donated her hiking boots to a museum.) For anyone trying to see winter in a new light, adopting friluftsliv is a crucial first step. "Well-being is not only about burning calories or eating right but about spending more time surrounded by nature," Lindahl says. "If you give it a chance, you may find that you're able to achieve more joy during the winter than in any other season." Here's how.

Find Good Company
It's easier and more fun to commit to spending time outdoors if you do it with a partner. In Scandinavia, many try to get out during the weekend. Follow their lead and make dates with old friends for cross-country skiing treks or snowshoeing adventures. Or make new friends by joining regular group outings led by local chapters of the Sierra Club. Hanging out with children also makes for a guaranteed workout. "When Claes and I bring our kids sledding," says Lindahl, "we end up running up and down hills for hours. It's so much fun, and we hardly notice all the exercise we're getting." And kids or no kids, there's always that old childhood standby -- the snowball fight. Go for a walk. "The clarity of mind you get from being out in the winter can't be beaten," says Lindahl, who walks her children to school every morning across a lake that's frozen from January through April. If you really want to amp up your heart rate, take things a step further with Nordic walking, a sport that has become a Scandinavian national pastime since its inception in Finland in the early 1930s. Originally conceived of as an off-season training method for competitive cross-country skiers, it combines the concepts behind this sport with vigorous walking. Enthusiasts use special Nordic-walking poles (modified ski poles) and a safety shoe attachment for icy surfaces, pushing down on the ground with every stride. The result: a full-body workout that benefits core muscles like the back, chest, shoulders, and abs. "Nordic walking burns at least 20 percent more calories than regular walking," says Malin Svensson, president of Nordic Walking USA. "And the active resistance against the poles connects the whole body, creating a very calming, meditative rhythm."

Bring the Dogs
Norwegian for "ski driving," "skijoring" is a traditional Scandinavian activity in which one or two dogs (think: huskies -- not Yorkies) draw a skier over the snow. All you need are a pair of skis and a cushioned belt for you, a rope that attaches to a comfortable harness for your best friend, and the willingness to try something new. It's beginning to pick up speed in the northern parts of the United States, with trails and clubs specifically designated for teaching and advancing the sport. Don't ski? No problem -- just being outside with a pup does wonders for your mind and body. "There's such a difference when I spend time outdoors with my dog," says Strandberg. "He's not just a partner. He can understand and see so many things that I, as a human, can't."

ENHANCE THE INDOORS
When it comes time to seek shelter from the cold, you want an indoor space that's every bit as invigorating as the outside. Again, you can turn to the Scandinavians for inspiration. After all, in northernmost Scandinavia at the height of winter (where the sun hardly peeps above the horizon), the light-starved population needs to maximize its inner comfort and cheer. To achieve this same uplifting atmosphere in your own home, take a cue from the region's famed streamlined style of interior design.

Celebrate Functionalism
Swedish functional design, or "funkis," combines the clean lines of modernism with the softness and sensuality of nature to create nurturing, highly practical spaces. The trademark natural materials, unpretentious warmth, and simple, sensual beauty reflect two goals: to produce a peaceful, welcoming environment and to maximize indoor light. "Natural materials like wood and wool erase the borders between you and nature," says designer Michael Malmborg, founder of Sweden's LYX Furniture & Light. And you don't have to overhaul your entire house (or buy out your local IKEA store) to achieve the look. "Start off simple," Malmborg suggests. "Replace plastic and metal bowls with wood and clay to add more warmth; strip your windows of heavy drapes that prevent precious light from finding its way inside; and use natural daylight bulbs that give you the same full spectrum as the sun."

Find Inner peace
When the sun goes down, add warmth to a room with the sensual glow of candlelight. Besides setting a calming mood, candlelight ("levande ljus," or "living light" in Swedish) offers a sense of harmony. "Fire has made such an impact on our lives, and we naturally feel more content when surrounded by it," Strandberg says -- even when it's just a simple flame. Candles set the mood for another indoor Scandinavian ritual for day and night: Acem Meditation, a practice developed in Norway in 1966 by psychologist Are Holen, M.D., Ph.D., who described the meditation as "a contemplative walk in the woods." Twice a day for up to a half hour, sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and repeat a single sound (no matter how silly) in your head to help release stress and resolve inner conflicts. Afterward, you'll feel remarkably energized and renewed. "Like spending time in nature, meditation makes time stand still," says Lindahl. "It refreshes our whole sense of being and allows us to feel pure existence, the essence of being alive."

Text by Jaime Gross