Ah, winter. Season of hot toddies, roast dinners, heated blankets and mulled … everything. Much less of an idyllic time for getting up early to hit the gym, going for a run in the evening darkness or even going for a bracing walk at lunchtime. And the evidence confirms what you probably suspect: in the winter, we tend to make our training sessions a bit shorter and spend more time sedentary. So are we casual exercisers doomed to backsliding in the icy months, or are there ways to tackle it? And does anything about the colder, darker months actually make maintaining your fitness easier?
First of all: yes, it’s helpful to make the effort during winter, even if you’re not concerned about your six-pack or 10k time. Seasonal affective disorder, which seems to affect women more than men, may affect not just mood but health more generally, though it’s not completely clear why. Exercise seems to alleviate it, with one recent study suggesting that people who do several hours of physical activity a week are less likely to develop depression, even after accounting for genetic risk. It’s not a cure-all, but exercise can help.
Are there benefits to training in cold weather? This is trickier. For years, it was assumed that bodies burn more calories in the cold to keep warm – a process known as thermogenesis – while also possibly helping the body’s white fat to take on the properties of brown fat, which works as a fuel to maintain body temperature. But just how beneficial these processes are is open to interpretation: many studies on thermogenesis and brown fat subject their volunteers to hours in the cold at a time, and it’s unlikely that a brisk jog will burn a significant numbers of calories. There’s also recent evidence that training in the cold can affect the hormones governing appetite regulation – making you likely to eat more after a cold-weather workout than after some sprints in the sun. It has also (finally) been established that, yes, you’re slightly more likely to get a cold when the weather’s cold – a study published earlier this year suggests that nasal cell defences are weaker when the cells are cold, making them less able to fight off viruses.
Still, the myriad benefits of exercise make it more than worth toughing out the odd pre-dawn alarm. So how do you get it done? “My top tip would to be to either use your commute to get your workout in, or make sure you get out again as soon as you get home,” says running coach Hayley Hemmings. “If we get distracted by doing housework or watching TV we’re unlikely to get out of the door. I’d also recommend buddying up with someone so you’re accountable to get out on a run.”
This also helps with safety concerns about running in the dark, which can be more of an issue for women. “For traffic, get yourself a bright-coloured top or hi-vis that allows you to feel seen and safe,” says Hemmings. “I also message someone when I’m going on a run and when I return. In the winter I always stay in well-lit areas. Finally, keep your winter training realistic so you are more likely to commit to it.”
Of course, if training outdoors doesn’t sound like fun even when you’re wrapped up, there are other options. Walking as little as 4,000 steps a day – a little less than two miles – can significantly reduce your risk of all-cause mortality, according to recent research – and each additional thousand steps helps. At the other end of the exertion spectrum, a short, sharp burst of high-intensity interval training training can boost your mood, while helping to reduce fat, with a shorter time commitment than traditional training. There are dozens of options online: if you’re not used to training, an entry-level option is the Timmons Method, or 20 seconds of high-intensity work (squats or kettlebell swings work) followed by about two minutes of active recovery (just moving around), repeated a few times.
And finally, don’t underestimate the importance of your mood on getting you to work out in the first place. There’s fairly strong evidence that adequate vitamin D can positively affect your mood, and it’s near-impossible to get enough from the sun in the winter. Get a spray or supplement – and don’t be afraid to chase it with something mulled.
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