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Forget hygge, it’s time for uitwaaien: Outdoor activity in the wind

Wind and cold won’t keep the people of the Netherlands from outdoors pursuits. Here, people take a dip in the water at Schoonschip in Amsterdam on Nov. 21.  (Ilvy Njiokiktjien/For the Washington Post)
Wind and cold won’t keep the people of the Netherlands from outdoors pursuits. Here, people take a dip in the water at Schoonschip in Amsterdam on Nov. 21. (Ilvy Njiokiktjien/For the Washington Post)
By Liza Weisstuch Special to The Washington Post

On a recent Wednesday morning in December, Tess Posthumus drove about 30 minutes from her home in Amsterdam to the beach, zipped up her wet suit, grabbed her surfboard and headed into the ocean. Just as she had two mornings before.

“In Amsterdam, housing is dense, and the openness of the beach is very healing,” said Posthumus, who owns two bars in the city, Flying Dutchmen Cocktails and Dutch Courage. “Plus, being in the cold water gives you that rush of adrenaline. We’re back in lockdown, and being a bar owner, it’s very stressful. The fresh, salty air helps clear your head a lot.”

Posthumus’s regular wintertime beach outings are a quintessential example of uitwaaien (out-vwy-ehn), a Dutch word that translates literally as “out blowing” but is perhaps better understood as “to walk in the wind.” Typically used as a noun, it describes the act of undertaking some sort of outdoor physical activity in windy conditions. Wind, as local wisdom goes, refreshes and recalibrates you.

“It’s an old saying: ‘I’ve gotta get uitwaaien.’ I’ve gotta clear my head and just get away from distractions for a bit,” said Arie Boomsma, who owns Vondelgym, a small chain of gyms in the Netherlands. In April, he published “10,000 Stappen Boek” (“10,000 Step Book”), a very uitwaaien-minded guide of 30 walks, each approximately 10,000 steps, Fitbit’s magic number, across urban and rural settings throughout the country.

“During the pandemic, it’s just become a thing to go outside, get some fresh air. There’s not much allowed aside from walking, running and biking. People just gave a whole new meaning to the term. Now it’s urgent.”

If any nation can lay claim to a concept of better health through wind, it’s the Netherlands. The country measures about 16,040 square miles, about half the size of South Carolina, and it’s incredibly flat, so there’s nothing to obstruct any gusts. The Dutch have harnessed the wind as a power source for centuries; windmills have long been so intrinsic to society there that they’re practically a national symbol. And that’s hardly a nostalgic bit of history. In 2019, General Electric built the world’s most powerful offshore wind turbine, nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower, in the Port of Rotterdam.

Uitwaaien is one of several foreign concepts that have garnered attention in the United States recently. Last winter, friluftsliv (free-loofts-liv) gained traction in the media. The Norwegian tradition, which translates as “open-air living,” involves embracing nature and making outdoor time a part of daily life no matter the weather. It turned out to be a very fitting tactic for coping with our cooped-up pandemic lives and seasonal sadness.

Earlier, around 2015, hygge (hue-guh) made its way – ever so softly – into Americans’ collective consciousness. The Danish concept, which isn’t tied to nature but is nevertheless an approach to managing the winter blahs, doesn’t have a precise English translation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of comfort or well-being.” (Think: wool socks, hot cocoa, a fireplace.) In 2016, the term made the Oxford Languages’ shortlist for “Word of the Year.”

A growing field of study known broadly as ecopsychology suggests that the health benefits of time outdoors are more than just New Age mumbo jumbo. Nalini Nadkarni, professor emerita at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences, points to shinrin-yoku as an example of how nature’s healing properties are supported by empirical data.

The Japanese phrase, coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, translates as “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” and studies show that people who spend time in forest environments exhibit lower blood pressure, pulse rate and cortisol concentration than people in urban settings.

“The more we understand the interaction between humans and nature, the more we realize the benefits that can occur – physical, mental and emotional – like the reduction of stress and positive effects on ADHD and depression,” said Nadkarni, who co-founded Nature and Human Health – Utah. The group, a collaboration between those in academia and members of the local community, such as park rangers and arborists, studies and promotes the connections between nature and human health.

“There’s an awareness that’s present in other countries where there are health and medical management regimes that we’re not aware of in the West, and with more and more literature solidly based in real science with reproduceable results, now we realize they can be very effective,” she said.

According to David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who specializes in attention and studies nature’s effects on focus, uitwaaien’s therapeutic effects align with attention restoration theory. The theory, which explains how nature resets cognition, relies in part on the concept of surrounding activity that occupies your attention but doesn’t monopolize it – activity such as a gentle wind.

“It’s something you don’t get if you look at a static photograph, but if leaves are blown by the wind, or there’s water flowing by or fire or waves on the beach, it gently captures attention. It’s enough to keep you engaged and looking at it, but not enough that you have to concentrate or multitask,” Strayer said. “The wind is one of the essential elements – earth, wind and fire – and part of the natural environment. As part of the wild, it helps ground us in the environment in which humans evolved.”

Like all lifestyles, uitwaaien has its casual partakers and more extreme devotees. Wim Hof, a Dutch health expert and extreme athlete who’s known as the Iceman, sits on the committed end of the spectrum and has his own beliefs on why it’s a beneficial practice. Hof created the Wim Hof Method, a blend of breathing technique and meditation that trains the body to endure frigid temperatures and cold water.

He holds 26 world records, 18 of which are Guinness World Records, including the fastest half-marathon run while barefoot on ice or snow (2 hours, 16 minutes, 34 seconds) and longest neck-deep submersion in an ice bath (122 minutes). He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts and shoes in 28 hours. But his practice is neither a superhuman capability nor New Age quackery.

For years, he worked with doctors and researchers at universities in the Netherlands and U.S. to demonstrate empirically how his particular style of breathing exercises can help fight inflammation, improve cardiovascular health, bolster the immune system, maintain high pH levels in the bloodstream, cope with trauma and depression, and control pain, among other things. The wind, he says, is linked to how we connect with physiology and achieve optimal health.

“We have a physical body, but it is like a radio: It receives and sends signals. And the carrier is the wind. The wind is able to change our biochemistry in the depth of our bodies for the better,” Hof said. “The wind offers the gas exchange between the outside and the inside of our selves. How do we regulate that? By doing the breathing, by letting the wind come into our bodies. That is a foundation of health.”

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