How the Nordic 'friluftsliv' lifestyle can fight wintertime and pandemic blues

Two men skate on an icy lake in Trondheim, Norway.

(CNN)It was negative 13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) when Lorelou Desjardins took a break from her workday to take a walk on the frozen lake near her home in Oslo, Norway. She was accompanied by her husband, who had recently been on four months of paternity leave, and their infant son.

Not only was she encouraged by her employer to take this walk — she is paid one hour per week to exercise or spend time outdoors. It's one of the several times she goes outdoors during the workday.
Other times are to put her 1-year-old out for a nap, wrapped up in blankets outdoors, like they do with him and the other babies in day care, or by taking a walk in the forest whenever she has a meeting over the phone with a colleague, which her workplace encourages her to do.
That's thanks to friluftsliv (pronounced FREE'-loofts-liv), a Norwegian custom that means living "life in fresh air," or more simply, spending time outdoors and being active.
    "It's life in fresh air, which in English, you could say is an outdoorsy life," she said. "But it's actually more than that. It's not just about being outdoorsy, it's about taking advantage of every moment you have in nature."

    Homing in on life balance and priorities

    Friluftsliv is not a concept the French-born Desjardins has spent her life living. She moved from France to Norway in 2010. However, she said she's much less stressed ever since making the move. She even did a TED Talk on the topic just over three years ago.
    "When I moved to Norway, I was kind of a workaholic. And so, coming here and having my boss tap my shoulder at 5 or 6 p.m. and tell me, 'What are you still doing at work? Go outside, it is nice weather," she said. "It's kind of this spirit of 'OK, work is great, but we have a life out there, that life involves being outside.'"
    Contrary to American "hustle culture," Desjardins said overworking and sacrificing your personal life isn't considered a good thing in Norway. It's considered an inability to prioritize in one's work to Norwegians.
    While Americans may not be able to ask their employer for a paid walk in the forest, Desjardins said there is much to be gained from adopting these practices — and people can do it in any natural area near where they live and work.
    People in Norway don't have some magical ability not to become cold, she said, noting that they feel the cold just like anyone else. But the chance to spend time outdoors and face a challenge isn't something that holds them back. In Norway, she said, there is a saying: "There's no bad weather, only bad clothing."

    Appreciating winter months

    With the pandemic still in full swing in the United States and the coldest months upon us, Dr. Paul Desan, director of the Winter Depression Research Clinic at the Yale School of Medicine, said many may be facing a "very tough, dark winter." And it's possible adopting some form of friluftsliv could help.
    For some, this tough winter can be attributed to seasonal affective disorder, a variant of clinical depression that is characterized by depressive symptoms in the fall and winter.
    "We used to think human beings were not seasonal animals," Desan said.
    Sheep, which are seasonal animals, he said, behave differently in different parts of the year, and their reproductive cycle and how their fur grows both depend on the light and dark cycle.
    "But it turns out human beings really are seasonal — and we (also) respond to the light-dark cycle," he said.
    Many people feel worse in winter in at least one way, whether it be sleep quality, appetite, energy or a desire to be social, according to Desan.
    "But the important public health observation here is that you have a relatively common condition that affects a lot of people ... (and) we actually have a very powerful, cheap, effective therapy," he said. "And that's bright light."
    Desan said that bright light can come from an electric light treatment device or simply natural illumination from the sun.