Winter Workouts 101
Winter doesn't have to put the freeze on your workout regimen. Bundle up, head outside, and you'll reap some surprising health perks.
Sure, we'll happily sing about a winter wonderland. But walk in it? Not so much. One study found that women take about 2,300 fewer steps per day in winter than in summer, marking a 30 percent reduction in physical activity. From a health standpoint, however, now is an ideal time to get outside and get moving.
For starters, cold-weather workouts can deliver optimal weightloss results, says Aaron Cypess, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. His research shows that cold exposure activates the body's stores of brown fat, a type of tissue that helps modulate body temperature—and burns calories in the process. "Unlike white fat, which stores energy, brown fat is metabolically active," Cypess says.
And while exercising anywhere can chase away the winter blues, doing so in sunlight revs the brain's production of feel-good serotonin for an even bigger boost, says clinical psychologist Stephen S. Ilardi, Ph.D., author of The Depression Cure (Da Capo, 2010).
Can't decide on a snowy activity? Read on as five women in cold climates share their favorites. Brring it on!
Best for weekday workouts: Ice-skating
Workout reward: Strengthens legs, butt, core
Why she loves it: "I'm lucky to work near the rink at Boston's Frog Pond—it's faster to pop out and skate during my lunch hour than it is to go to the gym, where I'd have to change into and out of workout clothes. Plus, after sitting at my desk for hours, I love feeling my leg muscles stretch and flex." - Amy Finsilver; Boston, MA
Best for beginners: Snowshoeing
Workout reward: Strengthens legs, butt, and (if using poles) arms and shoulders
Why she loves it: "Snowshoeing isn't difficult—if you can walk, you can do it. My family and I started on a lark when we found some snowshoes at a garage sale. Now I participate in an annual snowshoeing event that raises money to fight breast cancer. This makes the activity even more meaningful for me." - Sue Kober; Larkspur, CO
Best for busy moms: Sledding
Workout reward: Strengthens legs, butt, core
Why she loves it: "Dragging the sled uphill really gets my blood pumping, and flying down through the fresh air raises my spirits. But even better is the amazing quality time I get to enjoy with my two kids. With no rules or teams, everyone can join the fun!" - Fern Spence; Traverse City, MI
Best for solo sessions: Cross-country skiing
Workout reward: Strengthens legs, butt, core, arms
Why she loves it: "Cross-country skiing offers so much flexibility. Depending on my mood, I'll either hammer out a really hard workout or take it easy and enjoy the beautiful scenery and stillness. Lately I've been pushing myself—I'm training for a crosscountry ski marathon in February!" - Lindsey Kriete; Milwaukee, WI
Best for adrenaline junkies: Skate skiing
Workout reward: Strengthens legs, butt, back, shoulders, core
Why she loves it: "Skate skiing is a form of crosscountry skiing that uses shorter, narrower skis. It's highly aerobic, and it tones you right up. So even when I have just 25 minutes to exercise, I can charge through a top-notch workout and get on with my day. The rush keeps me happy and glowing for hours." - Kate Geagan; Park City, UT
- Understand your limits. The body generally becomes acclimated to cold temperatures after a few weeks of regular exposure, says John Castellani, Ph.D., a physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. Until then, keep your activities close to shelter—say, by snowshoeing in a circular route—in case you catch a chill.
- Beware of overdressing. Bundling up can backfire if your workout makes you perspire. "Wet clothing moves heat away from the body much more quickly than dry clothing, increasing the risk of a cold injury," Castellani says. So dress in layers that leave you feeling slightly chilly after your first minute of exercise. (If you feel warm, remove a layer.) This will help keep you from sweating once you really get going.
- Drink before you're parched. Research shows that exposure to cold weakens the body's thirst mechanism. To guard against dehydration, which can leave you dizzy and weak, Castellani
recommends drinking 12–16 ounces of water before venturing into the cold. If you're going to be out longer than an hour, take a bottle of water (stashed inside your jacket or an insulated backpack to prevent freezing) and sip regularly.
- Swipe on sunscreen. Even on a gray winter day, the sun's UV rays penetrate the clouds and can harm skin. Plus, roughly 80 percent of UV radiation reflects off snow and ice, intensifying its effects. For this reason, wear UVblocking sunglasses or goggles, and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Just avoid formulas that contain water because they can freeze on skin, says Tina Vindum, author of Outdoor Fitness (Falcon, 2009). Sunscreen sticks often are a good bet.