Darker days have arrived. Here's how to make your home a wellness refuge all winter long.

From brightening your mood to inspiring you to move to keeping cold and flu bugs out, here’s your here-comes-winter to-do list.
Image: living room
When the nature outside your walls is a little bleak, bring some happier natural elements in, like plants, pillows and soft furnishings. Oscar Wong / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

Sad to say so long to the streaming sun and warm summertime air? It only makes sense that we are. Here comes the season of closed windows, more gray skies, and (for some of us) waking up in complete darkness.

All of those things are reasons enough to wake up feeling a little less chipper during the winter months than you might feel during the warm days of summer, explains Kevin Most, DO, Chief Medical Officer and a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

“We’re waking up in the dark and by the time we’re getting home [oftentimes] it’s dark,” he tells NBC News BETTER. And we’re usually spending less time outside, getting fresh air, and doing activities that are oftentimes healthier than the ones we do sitting indoors, he adds. That’s not to mention what we are seeing through our windows is probably a bit less colorful than what greets us in the summer and springtime.

So how do you make sure your home is helping boost your mood and wellbeing in the colder months, rather than bringing you down? Here are a few ideas.

(And remember, for all of the reasons we’ve mentioned, it’s normal to feel a little bit more down during the cooler winter months. But if those seasonal mood changes leave you feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, feeling hopeless, or preventing you from doing your usual work and activities, those may be signs of depression or seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression known to cause mood changes with the change of seasons. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms to get the help you need.)

1. Go back to the beginning and check that your spaces are serving their intended purpose

Step one to creating a home and personal spaces that are going to make you happier is making sure that those spaces are aligned (in form and function) with what you want to accomplish there, explains Sally Augustin, Ph.D., principal at Design With Science and author of "Designology: How to Find Your PlaceType and Align Your Life With Design". What are your objectives for a room where you’ll sleep? Socialize? Work? Do your laundry?

“You can fine-tune the sensory experiences so that the spaces align with your objectives and a lot of the environmental stressors get eliminated,” she says.

2. When it comes to design and décor, think about how it makes you feel rather than how it looks

A lot of us turn to design blogs and interior influencers for inspiration when it comes to choosing colors, shapes, and motifs for our spaces. (It’s not a bad thing; there’s a reason those experts are getting paid for what they do — they have an eye for it, and oftentimes a degree, too.)

But remember that a lot of design is subjective: You like what you like because you like it — and surrounding yourself with things that you like will go a lot farther in terms of making you smile than things that are simply “in style,” says Victoria Harrison, an interior design writer who authored "Happy by Design". “As soon as you start thinking of your home and décor in terms of how it makes you feel rather than how it looks, you’re on the right path.”

3. In terms of color, avoid stark whites

Research suggests the colors that surround us do affect our mood. The colors that tend to be most relaxing are bright colors, but shades that aren’t very saturated, Augustin explains. Even though bright white might contrast the grey winter weather, it can feel stark and sterile when it’s enveloping you in a room. Try a light version of sage green or a very light grayish blue for things like bedroom walls. And if you’re looking to boost creativity, research suggests using multiple shades of green is best.

4. Go curvy

Curvy lines and shapes tend to make us feel more comfortable, whereas we tend to associate straight lines and more geometric patterns with efficiency, Augustin says. Think of those generalities when picking armchairs and couches for living rooms that you’ll primarily be spending time chilling out in, she says. (And save the geometric-patterned rugs and wallpaper for spaces like a laundry room or home gym.)

5. Use light strategically

Winter months come with fewer hours of natural light and fewer sunny days overall. Less light affects our mood because our bodies need sunlight to produce vitamin D, which appears to help with functioning of parts of the brain that regulate mood and wellbeing. (Read: Yes, those summer streams of sunlight that wake you up and gently backlight your kitchen during dinner prep do make you feel better.) Try mimicking natural patterns with overhead lighting and lamps, suggests Kyja Stygar, MD, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Use bright lights in the middle of the day (look for light bulb intensities between 4,500 and 6,500k) and use softer dimmer lights (between 2,000 and 3,000k) when you’re first waking up and in the evening.

And take note of dark corners or spaces in your home, says Catherine Brophy, founder of Catherine Brophy Interior Design in Brooklyn, New York. “You can get yourself more visual real estate by balancing the light in a room.”

6. Optimize the natural light that does come in with mirrors and rearranging furniture

Use mirrors wisely to reflect the natural sunlight that does come in during the day, Harrison suggests. And keep windows cleaned and window sills clutter-free to allow that light to come in as brightly as possible, she adds. And keep curtains open during the hours you know you’ll get sunlight. Try arranging your furniture, so that where you spend time sitting or eating in your home is a space that’s sunlit, Augustin suggests.

7. Consider taking vitamin D when you turn back your clocks

And if you’re feeling particularly sunshine-deprived, consider daily vitamin D supplements, Most recommends. For adults, take one 2,000 IU supplement per day, he says (though it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement).

8. Queue up a workout reel

Winter snow and rain can quickly derail even the best of intentions to hit the gym or bundle up for a cold-weather run. (And when the conditions get severe, it may be unsafe to work out outside.) Have a lineup of exercise videos ready to stream so you can get some movement in in the comfort of your home. Most suggests queuing up a yoga or Pilates program. Neither requires a lot of equipment (usually just a mat or a carpet or rug will do), and both are great for flexibility, core strength, cardiovascular fitness, and balance, he says.

As when starting any new workout regimen, talk to your doctor if you have any underlying medical concerns or reasons why working out might not be safe.

9. Invest in some at-home gym equipment

If you have the space and the budget, invest in a set of weights, a jump rope, a medicine ball, and other home gym equipment so you can fit in other types of workouts without having to brave the elements. And if you have even more space and a bigger budget, consider investing in a simple treadmill or elliptical machine, Most says. (There’s pretty rock-solid evidence that exercise improves mood over the short-term — winter blues we’re looking at you — and is linked to longer-term mental health benefits, too, in that regular workouts are associated with lower risks of depression and other mood disorders, according to the American Psychological Association.)

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Pro tip: Set up your gym in front of a TV, Most says. Those 30, 45 or 60 minutes go by a lot faster if you’re glued to your favorite true crime series. (Or give yourself a workout series that you agree only to watch during your home gym sessions.)

10. If you have access to a set of stairs, you have access to a cardio workout

Either work in a few extra runs up and down the stairs over the course of your day in your home, office, or apartment building, Most suggests. Or if you have access to a stairwell, use them to do ladder runs or walk up and down them, which is a great cardio workout. (Climb one flight and return to the bottom. Climb two flights and return to the bottom. Climb three flights and return to the bottom — and so on until you’ve made it to the top level.) Talk to your doctor before trying it out to ask about signs to look out for that could indicate you’re pushing yourself too hard, like shortness of breath and chest discomfort (which should all be checked out by your MD).

11. Make a weekly exercise plan at the beginning of each week

This one is important all the time to help you keep on track with exercise goals, but especially during the winter when there are more variables that might prevent you from working out and there are fewer options to work out. Once a week, decide which days you’ll exercise and what type of workout you’ll do to ensure that you’re fitting it in and you’re getting a mix of different types of exercise (and not overdoing it in any one area), Most says. “If you schedule it, you’ll do it."

12. Declutter and organize

Use the time you’re stuck inside to tackle the indoor projects on your at-home to-do list, like cleaning out a closet or reorganizing a bookcase that’s overrun with odds and ends, says Ashley Murphy, co-founder of NEAT Method, a home organizing business. If you have things in order you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for, she explains — “which translates to less stress and more time to focus on the things that really matter to you.” (Accordingly, research finds that people with cleaner and less cluttered homes do indeed tend to be healthier, in better moods, and better able to focus on the task at hand compared with when spaces are messier.)

And while you need some things around that make you smile, have a purpose, and remind you the space is your home and not a museum, it’s pretty universal that too much clutter (the threshold is pretty subjective) does make us tense, Augustin says. Psychologists (like Denis Dutton in his 2010 book, "The Art Instinct") theorize it may be a relic of our evolutionary past when our ancestors’ lives depended on whether or not they could clearly identify threats on the horizon.

13. Frequently clean the surfaces that get frequently touched (including toys)

The winter months are cold and flu season and we know that viruses are spread when droplets from a cough or sneeze lands on a surface that someone else then comes in contact with, Stygar explains. Disinfect shared surfaces often. Even if no one in your household is sick, they may carry in a germ from the office or gym or anywhere else they’ve been that then gets you sick. “Areas that are often forgotten are light switches, remotes, door handles, faucet handles and electronics,” Stygar says.

14. Keep lotions and moisturizers handy

Winter 'tis also the season of dry skin. Cold, dry air means your skin retains less moisture. And if you’re disinfecting your hands frequently, those products and soaps can definitely dry out skin, Most says. Moisturizing hands (and other patches of dry skin) is important, too, he says.

15. Use a hygrometer

Homes tend to get dryer in the wintertime because of dry outdoor air, as well as the heat we pump throughout the rooms we live in. If the humidity is too high, germs will grow faster and last longer. If the humidity is too low, it leads to not only dry skin and chapped lips — but it also dries out the mucus in our noses and mouths, making it easier for germs to get into our bodies, Stygar explains. Get a hygrometer and check the humidity level in the different rooms of your house (because it will vary from room to room). Ideal indoor humidity levels are between 30 and 50 percent, according to Mayo Clinic.

16. Get your house’s air ducts cleaned in the fall

Speaking of things that happen to your home once you start blasting the heat: think about the dust and allergens that have been collecting in those air ducts during the months they haven’t been in use, Most says. “The fall is a great time to get your ducts cleaned,” he says — before you turn the heat on and start moving those allergens throughout your home.

17. And while you’re at it, clean your windows, too

Windows are the “eyes” of our spaces, Brophy says — and not being able to see out them will inherently make you feel a little less awake and a little foggier. “Having clean, clear windows will automatically make you feel better,” she says. Brophy suggests doing a “fall cleaning” just like you would do a “spring cleaning” to give your space a refresh for the season.

18. Add green, leafy plants

They’re not only in vogue at the moment, research shows that green, leafy plants actually do have a relaxing effect on us. Artificial ones will do; anything spikey (like cacti) will not, Augustin says. If you’re opting for succulents, choose something curvy and graceful, she recommends.

19. Embrace seasonality and bring the outdoors in

When the nature outside your walls is a little bleak, bring some happier natural elements in, Harrison suggests. Plants (as we’ve mentioned) do the trick. But research suggests that bringing other types of natural elements in our indoor spaces, such as paneling your walls with wood with visible grain or hanging pictures of lakes or oceans can boost mood, too.

And while simply appreciating and celebrating the change of seasons may sound hokey, it can go a long way in helping us smile on those bone-chilling winter days, Harrison says. Fill your vases with evergreen branches and holly berries that aren’t around in the summer months.

20. Give your kitchen some TLC

Our kitchens are where we nourish ourselves, where we tend to gather and spend time with others, and, in the cold winter months, where we enjoy and prepare some of the goodness the season has to offer (cups of steaming hot tea and hearty soups and stews).

“Make sure your kitchen is functioning really well when winter rolls around,” Brophy says. Keep it clean; make sure your fridge is stocked. For many of us (and according to feng shui theory), the kitchen is the heart of the home, Brophy says — and that’s especially true in the winter months when we’re probably spending more of our down time there than other parts of the year.

21. Freeze fresh veggies throughout the year

Bushels of tomatoes, greens, and every type of berry are sights for sore eyes by the time December and January roll around. Plan ahead and freeze fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year (the fresher they are when you freeze them, the more nutrients they’ll retain), Most says.

22. Keep high-protein breakfasts prepped and ready-to-grab

Cold temperatures equal carbohydrate cravings: fresh-baked cookies, a warm croissant, gooey mac and cheese, pasta, pasta, pasta. One way to crack the winter carbo-loading habit is to make sure you’re starting your day with protein, which will help curb carb cravings throughout the day, Most says. One of his favorite protein hacks: Boil a dozen eggs at the beginning of the week for a grab-and-go breakfast you have no excuse to go without.

23. Surround yourself with comfortable textiles

From the couch you sink into to the pillow you rest your head on to the blanket you wrap yourself up in, think about texture, Augustin says. We love soft textures, she adds (though you probably didn’t need a psychologist to convince you of that). “Get rid of the things that itch or annoy you,” she says. Or if you can’t afford to replace a bigger-ticket item like a couch or armchair that’s not your favorite, try a slip cover or just adding a blanket you can put between your skin and the object when you sink into it.

Pontus Edenberg / Shutterstock / Pontus Edenberg

24. Get a really great pair of slippers

The more you love the things around you in your home, the more joy it will bring you, Brophy says. And that starts with your personal foundation (your feet!). Make sure you have a pair of slippers waiting for you in your closet that you can’t wait to slip your feet into, she suggests.

25. Add scents that remind you of good memories

Scents that remind us of happy memories (like the flowers your favorite aunt used to keep on her table or the chocolate cake your Grandma used to make) pretty much universally put us in better moods, Augustin says.

26. Fill your home with the people who make you happy

Socializing is one of the top mood boosters out there. Just because some of the activities you do with certain friends are out of season (like golfing, hiking or camping), don’t recuse yourself from those relationships during the wintertime, Stygar says. Find indoor activities and winter hobbies you can invite your friends over to do with you (shared meals, card games, game nights, book clubs) to keep those relationships vibrant all year long.

Making a space happy for not only you, but for others too, has a trickle-down effect on your own levels of joy and contentment, Harrison says. And those shared happy times will continue to elicit happy memories and vibes even when the company has gone.

27. Dedicate one space in your home to your favorite things

It only takes one space in your home that you love to instantly give your mood a boost, Murphy says. It might be the décor, the cozy furniture, photos that remind you of happy memories, or the lack of work and a to-do list that make you feel so good there, she says. “Don’t be afraid to take time to cozy up there to take some time for you.”

28. Do you!

Most importantly, buck the trends and throw everyone else’s opinions out the window (unless that other person is a partner or roommate you’re sharing the space with and warrants a say in the decision). When it comes to what you should do to a room to help it make you feel happy in it, make a space that makes you feel happy in it, Augustin says. Choose the colors, textures, scents, shapes and sounds that resonate with you. Choose what makes you comfortable. After all, Augustin says, “you’re the one who’s going to live there.”

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