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A man and woman running outside in the cold, showing the health benefits of staying active in winter. An illustrated calendar is below.

December 15, 2022 • read

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10 tips to stay active during winter

Snowy weather isn’t exactly conducive to jumping out of bed and getting your sweat on. And frigid temperatures can make it tempting to avoid getting out and active during the winter. But, the risks of a sedentary lifestyle are real. Here’s how to overcome your winter urge to hibernate so you can stay active during the coldest months.

Why’s it hard to work out in the winter?

If you’re wondering how to get motivated to exercise in the winter, you’re not alone. The cold weather seems made for snuggling under a blanket or curling up in bed with a good book. So it’s little wonder that working out in the winter requires more willpower than you can sometimes find.

There’s more to it than just a craving for comfort though. Research shows that cold temperatures prevent you from contracting your muscles as quickly.

Additionally, there’s a correlation between your levels of vitamin D and how well your body supplies oxygen to your muscles. So, since winter’s shorter days decrease the amount of vitamin D the sun provides, and the cold makes it harder to engage your muscles, exercise can quite literally require more effort than during the summer.

Is working out in winter effective?

While it might require more willpower, the benefits of exercising in the winter months are extensive. For starters, because you don’t get as hot as you do during warmer months, you’ll likely be able to push yourself a little harder in the winter. This can help you develop muscle and build endurance, strengthening your overall fitness levels.

Additionally, exercise can be a bit of a silver bullet when it comes to some of winter’s worst concerns. Vitamin D is scarcer in winter, making outdoor activities a great way to soak in what little is available from the sun. This crucial vitamin is a building block for maintaining healthy bones and teeth and reducing inflammation, so you don’t want to be deficient.

Beyond access to vitamin D, there are a number of mental health benefits to working out. Exercise increases your serotonin and endorphin levels, which makes it a great tool for helping to boost your mood, regulate your sleep cycle, and potentially stave off seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Staying active when the weather gets colder will also keep your immune system strong. Exercise increases your CD4 cell count — the white blood cells that defend you against pathogenic invaders. This effect is so potent, studies suggest it reduces your chances of acquiring a viral infection by just over 30%.

Exercise also releases pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, while increasing lymphocyte circulation and cell recruitment. These processes are crucial to the functioning of your immune system, helping to both lower your chances of getting sick and decreasing the intensity of your symptoms if you do.

What’s more, exercise may amplify the benefits of your annual flu shot. That’s because active folks are more likely to have a robust immune response following vaccination than inactive individuals. Even a 90-minute walk following a COVID-19 or influenza vaccine can increase antibodies against these viruses weeks later.

Finally, just being cold burns both calories and fat. Shivering alone increases caloric output as much as three to five times your resting energy expenditure. It also prompts your body to start burning brown fat to generate heat and keep you warm.

While this may seem promising, you shouldn’t attempt your next winter run in a t-shirt and shorts. Your core temperature increases enough during exercise that you’re unlikely to shiver, even outdoors. If you do shiver, it’s likely because you’re not dressed appropriately, which can become a safety issue.

Is it safe to work out in cold weather?

Yes! But, how to exercise safely in winter’s cold weather means taking proper precautions.

Frostbite and hypothermia can be serious consequences of dressing improperly in winter. They’re also more likely to happen when you’re wet — like from sweating. If you’re going to exercise in cold weather, make sure to insulate your body from the cold with breathable, removable layers.

You’ll also want to avoid going outside in extreme temperatures. 0°C might seem warm enough, but the wind chill factor can cause temperatures to feel significantly colder. Once temperatures drop below -27°C with the wind chill, exposed skin is subject to frostbite within 10 to 30 minutes, or less.

10 tips for exercising in winter

Staying active during the coldest months might require a little more planning, but the effort is worth it. Here’s how to get the most from your winter workout.

1. Choose an activity you love

Fitness doesn’t have to mean suffering, and there’s no point in committing to a workout plan you don’t enjoy. Running might be accessible for you, but if you hate it, you likely won’t do it. Instead, take some time to brainstorm exercises you actually like doing so that working out doesn’t have to feel like a chore.

2. Set your fitness goal and stick to a routine

Canadian guidelines stipulate that you should get at least two and a half hours of physical activity weekly. As long as you’re breaking it into sessions of 10 minutes or more, how you get that is up to you. Decide when and where you’ll be exercising and schedule it into your calendar to keep yourself on track.

3. Invest in proper gear

Layering up with thermal clothing for winter is a must. This will keep you feeling toasty while letting you strip off layers as you get too hot. But don’t stop there. Make sure your hands and head stay warm with well-insulated mitts and a hat.

Finally, don’t forget about your feet. Warm, sweat-wicking socks inside insulated boots with great tread are a must for getting out in the snow and cold. Or, if you’re going to be running or moving quickly, ditch the boots in favour of trail running shoes with added grip for better traction.

4. Stay visible

Winter days are short, and the nights are long. If you’re heading outside in the evening or early morning, make sure drivers can see you clearly by wearing clothing with reflective strips.

5. Check the weather forecast

Snow storms, wind chill, and freezing rain can make it too treacherous to venture out. Check the forecast before heading out, and if the weather’s too extreme, choose an indoor activity instead.

6. Don’t skip the sunscreen

The sun’s rays may not feel as hot in winter, but they can still cause sun damage, premature aging, and burning. Counteract this by slathering on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.

7. Stay hydrated

It might not seem like you’re sweating as much as you would during a summer workout, but staying hydrated in cold weather is just as important. Prevent winter dehydration by upping your water intake before and after your workout. You can even incorporate water-rich fruits and vegetables as a post-workout snack, like apples, oranges, cucumbers, and celery.

8. Raise your body temperature and limber up before you start with a dynamic warm-up inside

Go beyond cursory stretching to guide your joints through their full range of motion, starting with small motions before moving to larger movements. You can also try squats and standing marches to raise your core temperature before going out into the cold.

9. Don’t overdo it

Winter conditions are harsh, and snow and ice can be hazardous, especially if you’re considering an activity like running. If outdoor conditions are too severe, consider taking a day off or finding an indoor activity instead to stay safe. Swimming, yoga, and mall walking are great ways to get active without stepping outdoors.

10. Get a workout buddy

Enlisting support is a great way to help you stay motivated to work out, especially in winter. Enthusiasm can wane during winter’s coldest, darkest days. Knowing that your workout buddy is expecting you can be just the motivation you need to keep going.

What’s a sedentary lifestyle?

According to Canadian guidelines, being sedentary means being inactive for more than eight hours a day. This includes time spent sitting at a desk or computer, or driving.

This eight hour window also encompasses recreational screen time, which shouldn’t exceed three hours. Unfortunately, if you spend your evenings binging shows or scrolling your phone, that might mean you’re getting too much.

What’s the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on your body and health?

Sitting may seem innocuous, and screen time is such an integral part of so many Canadian lives that these guidelines may seem excessive. But, sedentary behaviour increases your risk of developing a number of health issues. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Obesity
  • Depression

The bad news doesn’t end there. Your physical activity, or lack thereof, can also affect your core brain skills. It’s not completely clear why, but being sedentary is associated with a decrease in cognitive functioning. This means exercise isn’t just a crucial component of physical health, it’s a key driver of intellectual ability.

The physical effects of a sedentary lifestyle on your muscles are more obvious. When you don’t use your muscles regularly, your body thinks you don’t need them. Consequently, it begins to break down your muscle tissue resulting in muscle atrophy, which is a loss of muscle tissue. This can lead to weakness and increase your risk of falls and injury.

Symptoms of lack of exercise can also appear as low mood, lethargy, digestive issues, and trouble sleeping.

While it’s okay to take a break from being active from time to time, switching to a sedentary lifestyle for even just a few weeks can cause noticeable effects. Luckily, incorporating regular exercise into your life can reverse many of these changes.

How Maple can help you stay healthy this winter

If you take away one thing from all this, it’s that little actions can make a big difference. Try to incorporate regular movement breaks into your day or schedule a 10-minute walk around the block. These small bursts of activity really do add up.

But, while regular physical activity is beneficial, make sure to check in with your healthcare provider before beginning a new workout program. Working with your healthcare provider can help you avoid any exercise pitfalls, so you can develop a plan that’s right for you.

If you’re concerned that your sedentary lifestyle is impacting your health, however, Maple can help. Maple is a telehealth platform that connects you to Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer.

With Maple, you can also schedule a general health assessment to give you a 360° view of your health. This will help you gain an understanding of any specific risk factors you may have, and identify and treat any conditions before they become too serious.

Additionally, your general health assessment practitioner can help to guide you away from less healthy behaviours toward more beneficial ones. If you’re looking to make a positive shift in your life, don’t wait. Reach out today to schedule your general health assessment and start living your best life.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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