By Dr. Mercola
Many people find it challenging to exercise in the wintertime. Between the weather, diminished sunshine, and the tendency to want to hibernate, getting yourself to the gym might feel a bit like wading through peanut butter.
If the holidays resulted in some suboptimal diet and exercise patterns, you’re certainly not alone.
Winter sports motivate many to brave the elements, but is it healthy to exercise in the cold? There is scientific evidence that shows that not only is exercising outside good for you, but it may also offer special health benefits that you simply can’t get in a gym.
Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ice-skating are great workouts, as is shoveling snow (although admittedly not as much fun).
It’s generally safe to exercise outside when it’s cold as long as you take a few precautions, such as dressing in layers, staying hydrated, and paying attention to signs and symptoms of cold-weather dangers like frostbite and hypothermia.
If you don’t enjoy winter sports, one of the best ways to get back into the swing of things is by doing living room workouts, such as bodyweight exercises.
In this article, I’ll review the benefits of exercising outdoors in the wintertime, as well as, indoor alternatives that will get you off the couch and on your way to summer svelteness.
The Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors
Emerging science suggests there are mental and physical benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated in a gym.1 The fitness boom has brought about an astronomical increase in the number of gyms.
Despite this increase, it has failed to generate any improvements in our national physical activity level, which suggests that gyms are not the answer.
As a culture, we spend far too much time sitting, with most of that sedentary time spent indoors, in front of a desk or TV. A natural, healthy amount of sitting is about three hours a day, but the average American office worker sits for 8-15 hours a day.
There are at least 24 different diseases and conditions associated with excessive sitting, and the list is growing. You even raise your risk of lung cancer by more than 50 percent simply by sitting too much.2 Yes, it can be more impactful than being exposed to secondhand smoke!
Winter workouts can boost your mood, improve your concentration, increase your energy and relieve boredom. A 2012 study3 found that older adults who exercised outside exercised longer and more often than those working out indoors.
Exercising outside may also do a better job of relieving stress. A few small studies have shown that people have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after exercising outside, compared to inside.
One systematic review4 found that, almost universally, volunteers reported enjoying walking outside more than walking inside and on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside.
A phenomenon that may explain this is “vis medicatrix naturae,” which translates to “the healing power of nature.”5
Your Fat Storage May Nearly Double in the Winter
Compounding the issue of winter sluggishness is the biological tendency to store more fat. If you feel like your carbohydrate cravings ramp up during the winter months, it might not be your imagination—there’s actually a good reason.
When University of Colorado researchers studied a group of 12 women and six men in both summer and winter, they discovered that their production of ATLPL, a chemical that promotes fat storage, almost doubled over the winter and dropped back down in the summer.6
However, exercising increases SMLPL, the muscle enzyme that promotes the burning of fat, which offsets the effects of ATLPL. Researchers found that those more physically active were less susceptible to seasonal weight fluctuations.
Serotonin also comes into play. According to Harvard Hospital’s Judith Wurtman, PhD, who coauthored The Serotonin Power Diet, wintertime triggers cravings for sweet carbohydrates because diminished sunlight reduces your serotonin activity. Your brain is making you crave carbs because they cause your serotonin level to rise.7
Exercising in the winter can help with all of this. You actually burn more calories just by being chilly in the first place. It’s not a massive difference, but your body has to work harder in the cold to get you up to a functional temperature, so your workout starts even before you hit the trails.8 Other benefits of outdoor winter exercise include the following:9,10
Exercising keeps you warm for hours Less exposure to germs from people sharing enclosed spaces (such as a gym) Gives you extra energy Helps build tolerance to the cold and elements Breaks up the monotony of a gym, reinvigorating your routine and preventing boredom Helps you appreciate the value of warm ups and cool downs, which are even more important when it’s cold Challenges more muscles due to uneven terrain You’ll drink more water; dehydration may be more difficult to notice during cold weather, so pay extra attention in the winter Strengthens your heart by making it work harder (please read cautions in the next section) Exposure to plants boosts your immune system, possibly related to the airborne chemicals they release11
Cautions About Exercising in the Cold
Exercising during cold weather is generally safe, as long as you take certain precautions and pay attention to signs and symptoms of specific cold-weather risks. Three primary dangers of cold weather exercise are frostbite, hypothermia,12 and an increased risk of heart attack, so you should know what to look for. Another potential concern is slipping and falling on the ice—which unfortunately I have done.
In the cold, your heart and cardiovascular system must work harder, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, which may raise your risk for a heart attack. Cold air can restrict your airway, making breathing more difficult. If weather conditions are extreme, it would seem prudent to opt for an indoor exercise routine until conditions improve, such as bodyweight exercises, which I’ll discuss below. If you have any of the following health conditions, please consult your physician before engaging in cold weather activities:
- Exercise-induced bronchitis
- Heart condition
- Raynaud's disease (a condition that limits blood circulation to certain areas of your body, causing them to go numb and turn blue in response to cold temperatures or stress. This may make it difficult to determine whether or not you're getting hypothermic, as well as increasing your risk of injury from reduced blood flow)
Dressing for Chilly Winter Workouts
Exercising outdoors in the winter requires some special attention to your attire. Using appropriate layering that keeps you warm—but not too warm—is the key to your comfort and safety. Here are a few suggestions about how to dress for those nippy winter workouts:
- Footwear: Select shoes that are sturdy and have good traction to prevent slips and falls on the ice or snow.
- Layer up: Dress in three or more layers. Closest to your body, wear a lightweight synthetic material to wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid heavy cotton fabrics as these absorb sweat and trap wetness close to your body, which increases your risk for hypothermia. Next, add one or two layers of wool or fleece for insulating warmth. Top it off with a lightweight, water-repellant, wind-resistant outer layer. It’s also advisable to use light and/or reflective clothing, as it gets darker earlier.
- Gloves: Gloves protect your fingers from frostbite. Layering thin gloves with heavier mittens is a good strategy so you can remove a layer if needed without exposing your bare skin to the frigid air.
- Hat: In the winter, it’s important to keep your head covered as about 50 percent of your body heat is lost from your head when it’s exposed.
- Masks and scarves: When the temperature is below freezing, covering your face with a scarf or mask can help warm the air a bit before it enters your lungs. Health risks increase substantially when the combined temperature and wind chill falls below -20°F.
Staying In? Try Some Bodyweight Exercises
As the name suggests, bodyweight exercises involve using your own body as resistance. You can tone every muscle in your body with hundreds of exercises that can be performed in a small space and adapted to your fitness level. Bodyweight exercises, like the ones Jill demonstrates in the video above, are a simple answer to the challenges of weather, scheduling, finances, or just plain boredom.
No holiday closures to deal with, no personal trainer to coordinate, and no expensive equipment is required... just you and gravity. If you work from home, you can spread these exercises throughout the day without ever having to leave your house. If you’re a fan of fitness technology, there are even apps for bodyweight workouts. In the Huffington Post, Dave Smith lists some of the greatest benefits of bodyweight exercise:13
- Workouts are highly efficient. Since you aren’t using equipment, you spend minimal time transitioning from one exercise to the next, so your heart rate stays up.
- You get both cardiovascular and strength training. It’s not necessary to do two separate workouts to achieve both types of fitness. If you perform your exercises slowly, you’ll increase their intensity. And you can alternate your exercises between cardio and strength training, or low impact and high. There is no end to the flexibility of these routines.
- Your core strength is improved. You have 29 pairs of muscles in your pelvis, abdomen, and lower back that make up your core, which is important for maintaining strength, coordination, and balance in your everyday activities, from hauling groceries to working in your garden.
- You'll be more flexible. Increased strength without flexibility and range of motion won't do you much good. Good posture and athletic performance require good flexibility, so that you can bend and stretch with ease.
- Your balance will improve. As you progress into more difficult routines, your balance will improve, which gives you better body control and lowers your risk of falling, especially if you’re elderly. Bodyweight exercises can be adapted for any age or ability.
Challenge Yourself with Tried and True Classics
Many bodyweight exercises are based on the old familiar standards—push-ups, squats and lunges—but there are endless variations. For example, you can easily tweak a traditional push-up into a powerful core-building workout by doing a reverse push-up. A reverse push-up involves lowering your body into the typical push-up position, and then instead of pushing your body upward, you bend your knees and move your body backward before moving forward into the starting push-up position. These are great for your abs, as well as your shoulders and arms.
Squats are one of the best functional exercises out there and can be done anywhere, providing whole-body benefits such as mobility and balance. They have long been criticized for being destructive to your knees, but research shows that when done properly, squats actually improve knee stability and strengthen connective tissue. For the ultimate challenge, try super-slow squats, Burpees and Mountain Climbers. Or try your hand at the exercise Turkish wrestlers of old used to condition themselves for their grueling competitions, Turkish Get-ups (for these, you’ll need a kettlebell or dumbbell).
The important thing is to do some sort of physical activity often, intermittently throughout the day, every day. Taking five minutes of every half hour to walk, do jumping jacks, lunges or any other exercise will help reverse the physiological effects of excess sitting—as well as increasing your productivity. Intermittent activity is even MORE important to your health than extended workouts. Try stashing some resistance bands next to your sofa, so you can sneak in a few exercises during TV commercial breaks, instead of fast-forwarding through them. Many more ideas for in-home workouts can be found on our fitness videos page.
Changing Your Routine to Fit the Seasons
Exercising outdoors is a great way to beat the winter blues and escape the restrictions imposed by other exercise routines. If being outside in the winter is not your cup of tea, then there are many challenging bodyweight exercises that you can try without ever leaving home. If you focus on proper form, you’ll maximize your benefit and minimize your risk for injury. Because we're all different, what works for one person may not work for another. You may need to experiment a little until you find the exercise routine that works best for you—but then you’ll enjoy benefits in winter, spring, summer and fall!