29 Nov 2017
Autumn is drawing to a close, winter is nearly here and temperatures have plummeted. So, what does this mean for our workouts? Certainly, when it’s cold outside and it’s dark when we get up and when we come home, it’s easy for our motivation to wane a little. What should we do? Give up and wait until spring? Head for a nice warm gym?
The answer is almost certainly neither because exercising outdoors in colder weather has been shown to have numerous benefits. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that it is important to keep exercising on a regular basis. Exercise is easier, more enjoyable and more beneficial when it becomes a routine or habit and we should try not to break that habit just because the seasons have changed. It’s very common to gain weight during the winter months but if you can maintain a year-round workout regime you not only avoid this but will also find yourself in much better shape as the weather improves, laying excellent foundations for your spring and summer activities whether they be training for an event such as a marathon or cycle ride or just wanting to be body-confident for when you hit the beach.
Here are some other reasons to ensure that at least some of your workout time is outside in the cold.
It stops you being SAD
Exposure to natural light is a known depression fighter, especially for seasonal affective disorder, a condition brought on by the shorter, darker days. Outdoor winter workouts are a great way to take in small doses of sunlight. This sunlight can help to improve mood and boost vitamin D intake.
It helps you to be happy
It is well-known that all exercise, cold-weather or not, can increase your levels of endorphins, the feel-good hormones. Cold-weather exercise also has the ability to boost your mood further because as your body works harder to stay warm, the number of endorphins produced increase, leaving you with a stronger sense of happiness.
It can help ward off illness
Winter exercise boosts immunity during cold and flu season. Just a few minutes a day can help prevent simple bacterial and viral infections.
It helps generate ‘good’ fats
Regardless of exercise, studies have shown that being outside in cold weather can transform white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning beige or brown fat. Brown fat's purpose is to burn calories to generate heat. Brown fat is often referred to as the "good" fat because it helps to burn rather than store calories.
It’s good for your heart
Cold weather also makes the heart work harder to distribute blood throughout the body. For an unhealthy heart that struggles to manage the additional stress, this process can exacerbate illness and injury. But a regular exerciser with cardiovascular endurance can make their heart muscle even stronger with these cold-weather sessions, better preparing the body for more strenuous workouts in the future -- not to mention other non-exercise stresses in life.
You'll burn more calories.
As the body works harder to regulate its core temperature among the elements, you'll burn a few more calories during your wintry workout compared with one conducted indoors. While the calorie burn varies with each person's body mass and the extremity of the temperature, it can be a nice morale booster (especially around the food-focused holidays) to get more out of your sweat session in this regard.
So, there are clearly many benefits of cold-weather workouts, but are they safe? The answer is yes, provided we follow a few necessary precautions:
Protect your extremities
It is important to cover up well, focusing particularly on our extremities, head, fingers and toes which are more susceptible to the cold. Gloves and warm socks are important and we lose a huge amount of heat from our head so a warm hat is essential.
Use the ‘layering’ system
It may be tempting to put on that big bulky jacket for your winter workout to protect you from the elements and keep you warm. In actual fact, the most effective way to protect yourself from the cold is to wear multiple layers which can be added or removed depending on the conditions. The “layering system” is essentially a way of layering clothes together to ensure you are comfortable during outdoor activities. This could be to keep you warm or to cool you down. Layering often only refers to tops and jackets but you can layer leggings and trousers in the same way. You will find most hikers, climbers, snow sport lovers and many other outdoor enthusiasts will use an effective layering system. The reason wearing multiple thin layers will keep you warmer than a single thicker layer is because warm air is trapped between the layers acting as an insulator. If you were then to remove a layer you would reduce the amount of heat trapped which would cool you down.
Since our bodies warm up once they get moving, we should feel cold at first. When performing higher-intensity activities, overdressing can lead to excess sweating, which will cause the body to become wet. Damp skin is an unfortunate conductor of heat loss, and will lower body temperature and increase the risk of hypothermia.
So, it makes sense to do at least some of your workouts outside in the cold winter months, particularly on bright sunny days. But the most important thing of all is to keep exercising – don’t lose your motivation and don’t break your routine!
What do you prefer in wintertime? Outdoor workouts or head for the gym? I’d love to hear your views.