How to stay healthy and fit during the winter
Do you tend to be less active during the winter months? It may be time to give that another thought.
Exercise is one of the most beneficial ways to boost health and strengthen the immune system (IDEA Fitness Journal). And exercise benefits mental health as well. Exercise improves your brain chemistry to boost your mood and can be a powerful stress reducer.
Cold weather shouldn’t be a barrier to outdoor exercise, unless it’s excessively cold, windy, or if it’s raining or icy. There are actually some benefits of working out in cold versus hot weather. Cool temperatures allow you to exercise longer and more comfortably – you don’t overheat as quickly.
Being active outdoors helps your body make vitamin D from the sun, which can help fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. It can help you sleep better as well. Getting morning or mid-day sunlight is especially needed this time of year, since it gets dark so early.
But wintertime exercise isn’t limited to just the outdoors. There’s plenty we can do indoors as well! Read on for ways you can work out in the winter, whatever your preference.
Winter exercise ideas for outside
During the quarantine when gyms were closed, many people took to the outdoors to get moving. Whether indoors or out, exercise is a wonderful healthy habit to continue year-round.
Outdoor options include:
- Tip: walking the dog is a great way to get it done.
- Personally, I prefer hiking trails in cooler weather rather than the heat. Be sure to check out Joe Miller’s hiking articles here on the blog for tons of awesome tips.
- Playing outdoors with kids or dog
- Winter sports such as skiing, skating or hockey
- Outdoor bootcamp workout classes
- Calisthenics in a park
- Jumping rope
- Snow shoveling, though be careful not to overdo it if you’re not currently active
- Finding stairs or bleachers to climb up and down
- Exercising in your yard. Here’s something to try: “A fun circuit workout you can do in your backyard or outdoor space.”
Indoor winter workouts you can do at home
If the weather is bad or going out in the cold just isn’t your thing, don’t let that stop you from staying in shape over the winter. You can get an excellent workout in the comfort of your home.
Indoor home workout ideas include:
- Live online exercise classes
- Workout videos
- Investing in a new or used stationary bike, elliptical or treadmill
- Strength training using weights or body weight
For more, see my story, “How to exercise at home with limited space and budget.”
Precautions to take when exercising outdoors in the cold
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), exercise can be performed safely in most cold-weather environments without risk if appropriate precautions are taken.
The major dangers of being in the cold are frostbite or hypothermia, which is when your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees F.
Hypothermia can be prevented by first assessing how cold it is. Monitor the temperature, wind, amount of sunshine, rain and altitude. Cold, wet and windy weather pose the greatest risk for developing hypothermia.
During or after exercise, chilling can occur quickly if the body is wet with sweat and heat loss continues (American Council on Exercise). The windchill factor can also be significant in determining if it is safe to exercise.
In the cold, people who have hypertension or heart disease could be at risk for narrowing of the blood vessels. The ACSM notes that people with asthma and cardiovascular disease can exercise in cold environments but should be monitored closely. If you have a medical condition, check with your doctor about what is appropriate for you.
Tips for staying comfortable and healthy while exercising outdoors in the winter
The American Council on Exercise offers the following tips for exercising in the cold:
- Layer up, and wear a hat. Wear several layers of clothing, so that garments can be removed or replaced as needed. A head covering is also important, because considerable body heat radiates from the head.
- Choose the right fabrics. Select clothing materials that allow the body to sweat during exercise and still retain body heat. Cotton is a poor choice, as it stays wet. Wool is good for exercising in the cold because it maintains body heat even when wet (many hikers prefer wool socks). Also excellent are synthetic materials labeled “moisture-wicking.” When windchill is a problem, Gore-Tex material for outerwear is good. It blocks the wind and is waterproof, while allowing moisture to move away from the body.
- Stay hydrated. Replace body fluids in the cold, just as in the heat. Fluid replacement is vitally important when exercising in cold air. Keep your water handy.
I also recommend using facial sunscreen (yes, even in the winter!), lip balm and wearing gloves.
Another thing I recommend is to do your warm-up indoors. Then, start exercising as soon as you go outside, before you feel too cold. The first 2-3 minutes outdoors may feel hard, but then you warm and will feel better than when exercising in hot weather.
When I come in after a cold weather workout, I enjoy a nice warm shower and perhaps even sip some hot tea. I feel refreshed for the rest of the day.
Keep it interesting by setting a goal to work toward
If you find it hard to stay motivated this time of year, try setting a goal to accomplish by spring, something that you can work on over the winter.
It can help to have a task to focus on, or to try something new. Pick one activity to work on specifically during the next month or two. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Complete a Couch to 5K program
- Enroll in an online exercise class
- Start working with a personal trainer virtually
- If you have a fitness tracker, pledge to get a certain number of steps in each day, or a certain number of miles for the month
- Complete a certain number of audiobooks during your walking workouts – walk and learn at the same time!
- Get a workout buddy for accountability and conversation
Get up and go
There are many physical and emotional benefits to exercise, but it won’t do you any good unless you actually DO it. So lace up your sneakers, and get out there and enjoy yourself in the fresh, crisp air.
You’ll be glad you did.
Prevention of Cold Injuries During Exercise, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,
Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals, American Council on Exercise, pp. 86-89.
“Safety Tips for Outdoor Group Exercise,” IDEA Fitness Journal, Jan.-Feb. 2021, p. 10.