GALENA, Ill. — After switching on the music, Emily Painter checked her computer to make sure all the dancers attending the class virtually could hear the song and see her as she started to move.
Every song had different moves and a new tempo, but each was designed to ensure the dancers — either participating remotely or in person — could follow along during the morning workout.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” said Painter. “We started out with doing it from my hallways with plug-in speakers, and now, we have a Bluetooth speaker. What’s interesting is (people) keep coming back.”
In March, Painter moved her twice-weekly dance exercise class at Galena Art & Recreation Center to an all-virtual format using Zoom after the facility shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Now that the center has reopened, about four of the members attend in person to shimmy to songs like Sister Sledge’s pop classic “We Are Family” and about another eight members attend virtually.
“I think that’s the beauty of the Zoom class is you can participate at your own level and no one sees you,” Painter said. “I think the thing that is important during this pandemic is just maintaining the connection between people. I realize some of these people are pretty isolated.”
Cathy Harms, 71, of Galena, has been a regular member of the class for years but now tunes in every Tuesday and Thursday remotely. For her, it’s a way to not only stay active but socialize with friends she doesn’t get to see anymore.
“We have maybe two minutes or so to kind of catch up on things before the class begins,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a social thing, too, and on Zoom, we can see their faces. It definitely makes me feel more charged for the day.”
As the colder temperatures set in and the sun vanishes sooner, people now more than ever are in need of ways to stay mentally and physically healthy amid not only the winter but the COVID-19 pandemic.
People are struggling in many different ways, but if they can find time to get up and get moving while seeing a familiar face or two, it might ease some of their stress, said Cathie Elsbree, 75, who virtually attends the classes each week.
“For me, it keeps me feeling normal,” she said. “This is a normal thing. I think when your whole world is tipped over, anything you can do that makes you feel like it’s the way it used to be is a really good thing. Not only is the exercise really important, but when it gets cold, we won’t be going out as often.”
In light of everything going on this year as well as preparing for winter, Mae Hingtgen is working with counties throughout the state to launch a campaign geared toward ending the stigmas associated with brain health.
“The 14 mental health and disability services (in Iowa) are working together on outreach discussion to make sure we are normalizing brain health,” said Hingtgen, the CEO of Mental Health/Disabilities Services of the East Central Region, which includes Delaware, Dubuque and Jones counties. “We are hoping we will have a social media campaign, a billboard campaign and a website to let people know that seeking help for brain health is OK.”
In the U.S., about 5 percent of the population experiences seasonal affective disorder, a subtype of major depressive disorder that can cause loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, irritable mood, changes in appetite and the feeling of hopelessness, said Dr. Nicole Keedy, a psychologist at Medical Associates in Dubuque.
But what’s more common for people who begin to feel down during the cold, gray months is something called the “winter or seasonal blues,” Keedy said.
“Having the seasonal blues would be having a couple of those symptoms — feeling more down and withdrawing socially — but still being able to function in daily life,” she said.
As winter rolls in and people continue to isolate to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Keedy advises her patients to be more intentional when it comes to planning ways to get outside, stay active and see others.
“The things that typically reduce the likelihood of becoming depressed in the winter are physical activity, enjoyable activity and social activity, and with COVID, certainly there are reduced ways of engaging in all of those things,” she said. “People are losing some of the ways they might get out during the winter. It’s going to take a lot more planning.”
Getting back to the great outdoors
The classroom at Swiss Valley Nature Center outside of Dubuque quickly filled up as students packed the room with pencils and notebooks ready to get to work for the four-plus-hour class.
This fall, the center held five youth hunter safety courses rather than its usual one due to the influx of young hunters hoping to get outside this year.
“There is a lot more interest in youth getting involved,” said Brian Preston, executive director of Dubuque County Conservation Board. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to get out with their families. It’s encouraging because, for years, we have been losing youth interest in the outdoors and hunting. Seeing so many youth become interested in going through hunter education is really encouraging for conservation.”
Cole Johnson, 14, was one of the first to find a seat in the class, eager to begin the session.
Every winter, he said, he hunts deer with his dad behind their home in Dubuque, but with the certification, he will be able to go out on his own.
“You cannot stay inside (this year) where it is nice and warm and be with your friends,” he said. “You have to do something.”
Evie Wood, 12, said she goes out hunting with her family in the Dubuque area and has her own BB gun she uses to practice.
“It’s fun when you actually shoot something,” she said. “It’s enjoyable to be out with your family.”
Jill Kahler, of Oshkosh, Wis., brought her niece and nephew to the class from their home in Davenport, Iowa. Kahler said it was the closest one to their home with many hunter safety courses being canceled this year.
“I think it’s a nice way to enjoy the outdoors and see animals and enjoy time outside, and learning a little bit about conservation is huge,” she said.
Kurt Kramer, a Dubuque County park ranger, checked students in during the class and ran them through a COVID-19 health screening checklist to ensure no one was sick.
“There is a backlog there to begin with, and now with us being the only ones in town, the classes are filling up very fast,” Kramer said as he marked students off the list during their check-in.
Although the temperatures have not dropped low enough for lakes to freeze, Dan Blake, a Dubuque County park ranger and longtime ice fisherman, said he expects this year to be a popular year for the sport.
“I’ve seen in the past five years ice fishing has become very popular,” he said. “With people wanting to get out and do more, they will figure out that’s something they can do.”
Blake said to get started ice fishing, anyone who is at least 16 years old needs a fishing license, ice fishing pole, wax worms and an auger to drill through the ice. He recommends people check out Mud Lake or Ringneck Ridge Wildlife Area in Worthington, Iowa, which will have bigger fish.
“With the pandemic that is going on, you can get outside and get some exercise and get some fresh air,” he said. “If the fish are biting, I could sit out there for a whole day.”
Sundown Mountain Resort has been planning all summer to safely welcome back skiers and snowboarders.
The resort will launch a new program called “smart pass,” through which people can rent their ski or snowboard equipment online before they arrive, so that it is ready. People even will be able to place food orders online while sitting on the chairlifts, said General Manager Mark Gordon.
“We have done a lot in what seems like a truly groundbreaking season,” he said.
Gordon said inside the lodge, tables have been pulled apart to ensure people are social distancing and dining has been moved upstairs to create more room for people to spread out.
“Skiing is a marvelous sport,” he said. “It allows you to have complete freedom of where you are going. Once you master the basics, it’s a 75-acre playground.”
A feeling of normalcy
After workers throughout the nation were sent to work from home and others were spread through offices, many companies have invested more time and energy into finding ways to support their employees.
This year, BARD Materials has created new and fun ways to have safe interactions with employees, said Jessica Kemp, the company’s leadership development and employee resources director.
“We distributed pumpkins and did a virtual pumpkin carving, where all of the employees take a pumpkin home to their family and carve it,” she said. “This year, we also did a fitness activity.”
Kemp said there has been an overwhelming response to the engagement programs this year as people look for ways to stay connected and socialize as the pandemic drags on.
Katie Baker, health and wellness coordinator at BARD, said she is working on new programs for the winter months knowing people might begin feeling more isolated.
“It is really important to let people know how they can access them with all of the unknowns going on with the world,” she said. “The leadership team has actively planned something for every single week for the rest of the year.”
Like many other restaurants this year, what saved Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar was its ability to adapt, including by expanding its outdoor space.
But with those warm evenings finished, the Dubuque restaurant needed to refocus its plans, said owner Kevin Scharpf.
“What came with that is obviously our approach internally and how we stayed positive through each and every service, and we started thinking of ways knowing through the wintertime we are going to keep our social distancing and the 6-feet spacing,” he said. “What can we do to continue experiences and other features to give people something to look forward to?”
This fall, Brazen will launch Brazen Reserve, which will be an expansion of its current facility to offer a 12-seat dining area for people hoping to dine privately away from the main room or celebrate a small gathering with friends and family.
“When the winter comes, we will be faced with an obstacle like we’ve never experienced,” Scharpf said. “If there is a way for all of us restaurants to band together and not put the burden on the customer, we can enter this winter and make it more enticing and exciting for people to eat out.”
Setting aside time for self-care
With the holidays also comes holiday food, but rather than worrying about limiting sweets or second helpings this winter, try to be mindful of what’s going into your body and also supplement meat or starch with vegetables and fruits, said Katelyn Schobert, a dietitian at Southwest Health in Platteville, Wis.
“You don’t have to restrict yourself with the treats and goodies, but try not to overdo it, knowing that you are less active than you usually are,” she said.
When loading up on Thanksgiving dinner, remember to fill half of your plate with a fruit or vegetable, Schobert advised.
“Food really does have an impact on how you feel,” she said. “Sometimes when we eat too much, we might feel guilty. If we eat the wrong things, it might slow us down or feel like we’re in a fog. It is important to include a lot of variety of foods.”
As the days grow shorter and the temperatures begin to drop, it’s important to remember the word “self-care,” said Carrie Merrick, vice president for behavioral services at Hillcrest Family Services.
“Winter, I think, will make it harder for us to take care of our mental health and stay positive,” she said. “When you are isolated, it will heighten your depression, and we need to be meaningful about connecting with people.
“Relationships are very important. Without social interactions, we lose touch with reality.”