By Dr. Mercola
Does the winter season make you want to put away your workout clothes and hibernate until spring comes?
Resist giving in to the temptation, as staying active even when it's cold out can help you avoid holiday weight gain and coming down with colds and the flu, plus give you countless other health boosts.
Best of all, there are activities that become available only during this time of year, which means you have to act now if you want to take part in these fun and fabulous work out options.
Have You Tried These Five Winter Sports?
1. Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing is one of the best full-body workouts there is. It works out all of your major muscle groups, including those incredibly important core muscles (located in your abs, lower back and pelvis), while also challenging your cardiovascular system. An hour of cross-country skiing can burn upwards of 500-600 calories, depending on intensity, and it even helps promote better balance.
Physical benefits aside, cross-country skiing is also incredibly rewarding mentally, as it allows you to get away from it all and spend time with nature while you carve out your trail. Not ready to hit the trails just yet? An elliptical machine is a good alternative, especially as a tool to help your body get prepared for longer cross-country skiing adventures.
2. Downhill Skiing
This was one of my favorite activities when I was younger, but as I grew older and appreciate the value of sun on my skin I migrated to warmer ocean climates in the winter and now play in the ocean and ride waves instead of going down mountain slopes.
Even though a typical ski run takes just a few minutes, you'll be using key muscles very intensely during this time (hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hips and feet). As you speed down the mountain, your body will be improving its balance, agility and flexibility, while boosting its core and leg strength. And don't let the quick bursts of energy required fool you; downhill skiing is still a good cardiovascular workout that will get your heart rate up both while on your run and beforehand when you're carrying around your equipment.
You can expect to burn anywhere from 350 to nearly 600 calories an hour while downhill skiing, and you'll probably have so much fun you won't even realize it's a "workout."
Thrill seekers who enjoy the speed and adrenaline rush of downhill skiing may naturally gravitate to snowboarding, which requires your legs muscles and core muscles to help you steer and balance as you glide down a mountain. Flexibility and agility are key skills needed to be an effective snowboarder, and you can expect yours to improve significantly if you snowboard regularly.
This exciting winter sport will burn more than 450 calories an hour, and many stay at it for hours on end (be careful to avoid becoming over-fatigued, as this is when injuries are more likely to occur).
4. Ice Skating
Most people think of ice skating as a pleasurable winter treat, not a form of "exercise," per say. Actually, it's both. Ice skating offers a great cardiovascular workout, especially if you alternate between coasting and speed skating, while also building your leg muscles, abs and lower back. If you ice skate on a regular basis, your endurance will improve, as will your flexibility, balance and agility.
Plus, sliding across an ice skating rink, whether indoors or out, is a wonderful mood lifter that can help your stress and worries melt away.
5. Ice Hockey
If you enjoy group activities, ice hockey is a sport built on camaraderie as much as it is on physical ability. Offering many of the same physical benefits of ice skating (building both lower body and abdominal muscles, as well as working out your cardiovascular system), ice hockey also requires use of your upper body to move the hockey stick.
It can be an incredibly intense interval workout as well, as you'll typically only be out on the ice for 1.5 minutes at a time, during which your heart rate is likely to soar, followed by a resting recovery period.
Three Risks to Watch Out for When Exercising in Cold Weather
Generally speaking, it's fine to exercise when it's cold outside, but you do want to make sure you take certain precautions, and pay attention to signs and symptoms of specific cold-weather dangers. Three primary dangers of cold weather exercise are:
Frostbite: Subfreezing temperatures (20 degrees Fahrenheit or -6.6 degrees Celsius or below) dramatically increase your chances of developing frostbite. Early warning signs include a stinging sensation, numbness or loss of feeling, particularly in your cheeks, nose, ear, hands or feet.
If you suspect you may be developing frostbite, you'll want to get out of the cold immediately, and slowly warm the affected area (do NOT rub your skin, as this may cause skin damage). If the numbness persists, you need to seek emergency care.
Hypothermia is when your core body temperature slips below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). As it falls, your body compensates by shunting blood away from your skin and toward your vital organs such as your heart, lungs and brain.
Of your organs, your brain and heart are the most cold-sensitive, and as your core temperature drops, the electrical activity in these organs slows. Eventually, if your temperature drops too low, heart- and brain activity ceases altogether, and you die. If you suspect hypothermia, you need to seek immediate emergency help. Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
Increased heart attack risk: Winter is the most common season for heart attacks, with each 1.8-degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature on any given day linked to about 200 additional heart attacks.1 There are most likely several factors involved. For starters, cold temperatures can cause a rise in your blood pressure along with increasing levels of proteins that raise your risk of blood clots
When the weather is cold, your heart must also work harder to maintain body heat and your arteries tighten, which restricts blood flow and reduces the oxygen supply to your heart. When combined, all of these factors could trigger a heart attack, especially in the elderly or those with existing heart disease.
Additionally, because sunlight is scarce for many during the cold winter months, it can be very difficult to maintain high enough vitamin D levels, especially if you are not using a safe tanning bed or taking a vitamin D3 supplement to make up for the lack of sunlight. This can also impact your heart attack risk.
How to Exercise Safely During the Winter
Please don't let the risks mentioned above keep you cooped up all winter long. Many people have a hard time fitting in enough exercise even when the weather is beautiful, but during the winter may lead a largely sedentary lifestyle. The risks of giving up all of your physical activities during the winter months likely far outweigh those of exercising in the winter – even if you choose to do so outdoors. Dressing appropriately and paying attention to the following safeguards can help keep you safe and warm when exercising outdoors this winter:
- Dress in three or more layers:
- Use a lightweight synthetic material to wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid heavy cotton materials as these absorb sweat, trapping wetness close to your body, which can increase your risk of hypothermia
- Add another layer or two of wool or fleece for insulating warmth
- Top it off with a lightweight, water-repellant and wind-resistant material
Always wear a hat when it is really cold out, as you may lose a significant amount of your body heat from your uncovered head. Wear gloves to protect your fingers from frostbite. Layering thin gloves with heavier mittens is a good idea so you can remove a layer if needed without exposing your bare skin to the frigid air. Cover your face with a mask or scarf when the temperature is below freezing to avoid frostbite. This can also help warm the air a bit before entering your lungs. Wear sturdy footwear with good traction to prevent slips and falls on snow or ice. Check the temperature and the forecast. Health risks increase when the combined temperature and wind chill falls below -20°F. Wear light and/or reflective clothing, as it gets darker earlier during the winter months. You want to make sure drivers can see you. Drink plenty of fluids. Staying properly hydrated is just as important during cold weather as during hot weather. Drink before, during and after your workout, even if you don't feel very thirsty, as dehydration may be more difficult to notice during cold weather exertion. Tell someone what route you're taking, and when to expect your return, just in case something goes wrong. If you slip and fall in the winter, hypothermia can get the better of you if no one knows to go looking for you.
While staying warm is important, a common mistake people make is actually dressing too warmly when exercising in cold weather. Remember that exercise will generate body heat and sweating, even though it's cold outside. And once your sweat starts to accumulate in your clothes, it can have a significantly chilling impact. If it's really cold outside, it may even end up freezing close to your skin, which can lower your body temperature and increase your risk of hypothermia.
Staying DRY is equally important as being warm—hence the importance of putting on a wicking layer closest to your skin, and dressing in layers so you can remove a layer or two if you're sweating profusely. Just remember to put those layers back on once you begin to cool down.
Keep in mind that wind chill can make exercising risky even if you dress warmly. As a general suggestion, I'd recommend taking a break from outdoor activities if the temperature dips well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8 C), or if the wind chill factor is high, and opt to exercise indoors instead.