Why exercising outdoors in winter can be good for your health
Don’t let the cold weather put you off – outdoor exercise in winter is great for both your physical health and mental wellbeing.
Even those of us who love keeping fit can shudder at the idea of leaving a warm bed in winter to head outdoors and exercise. However, understanding the benefits of exercising in winter may just be the motivation you need to slip into your workout gear and hit the pavement instead of the snooze button.
From how it can improve your mental wellbeing, to useful tips on preparing for a cold-weather workout, here’s what you need to know about exercising outdoors in winter.
The benefits of exercising in winter
Exercise physiologist and nutritionist Veronika Larisova is a huge fan of exercising outdoors in winter. “During the colder months, I start my day with a long run and then jump into the cold waters at Bondi Beach,” she says. “It always takes a bit of time for me to adjust to the temperature, but I love the benefits and the way it makes me feel.”
She points to numerous studies that catalogue the benefits of cold water to back up her love of the winter waves. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that exercising in cold weather can burn more calories than in warm weather, since the body has to work harder to keep its core temperature regulated, kicking the metabolism into overdrive.
Other research suggests winter exercise can also help trigger the immune system to work harder, which may result in fewer coughs and colds during the cooler months. It can also help you exercise more efficiently and build endurance, since your heart doesn't have to work as hard in colder temperatures.
The impact of exercising on wellbeing
Exercise is also good for your mental health. Research has found exercise may alleviate symptoms of depression because it increases the levels of endorphins in the brain, which have ‘feel-good’, mood-lifting qualities. Outdoor exercise in particular can boost levels of vitamin D, which studies show can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing.
While it can be tempting to take a workout indoors when the weather is chilly, a study by Scientific Reports found 2 hours a week in a natural setting increased the likelihood of good health or high wellbeing. The benefits were consistent across age and included those with long-term health issues. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether the 2 hours came in short bursts spread across the week, or a couple of extended outdoor workouts.
Kylie Royal Meheen, a personal trainer, running coach and accredited exercise physiologist at Exercise for Rehabilitation & Health, agrees. “Going outdoors and breathing in fresh air, as opposed to recycled air, helps with oxygenating our cells and nourishing our bodies.”
Is exercising outdoors safe in winter?
Since winter in most Aussie cities is relatively mild, in the vast majority of locations the temperature isn’t cold enough to pose a health hazard if you’re properly prepared. If you’re concerned about hypothermia, for example, it typically occurs with prolonged exposure to temperatures under 10°C or if there is a very high wind chill. Even then, dressing appropriately reduces the risk.
“Unless you're in the snow in the middle of winter when it's below zero, exercising outdoors in cold temperatures is safe,” says Veronika.
However, if you have respiratory or heart-related conditions, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor about any special precautions you should be taking before embarking on a cold-weather fitness regime.
How to stay motivated
If the prospect of a 6am run seems too grim to bear, you might find exercising during the warmest part of a winter’s day more appealing.
“It might be that you go for a lunchtime walk or do a mini circuit outside,” suggests Kylie. “And if it’s really poor weather with some rain thrown in, give yourself permission to exercise indoors.”
She also advises visualising how you’ll feel after you complete an outdoor exercise session to increase your motivation. “Maintain your focus on how you’re going to feel afterwards – it provides a real sense of achievement.”
How to prepare for a winter workout
The biggest risk with exercising outdoors in winter is possible muscle strain caused by an inadequate warm-up, so try not to be in a rush to jump straight into a session. As it takes longer for your body to warm up when it’s cold, wear layered clothing that can easily be peeled off as your body temperature increases.
“If your body has gone from being sedentary and it’s cold, there’s a chance you might strain a muscle,” says Kylie. “If you're going to go for a run, start by walking the first 500 metres and then ease into a slow jog before picking up the pace after a couple of minutes.”
Wear layers and drink water
Veronika adds that, to stay warm, many people overdress in cold weather because they underestimate how hot they will become once they’ve started exercising. She also recommends investing in running clothes rather than wearing normal streetwear to exercise in, as well as good quality socks to provide adequate cushioning on hard surfaces.
“A regular cotton T-shirt won’t absorb sweat well, so you can end up getting quite wet,” she explains. “Then a chilly wind will make you really cold as you end your workout. Go for breathable materials and layers that you can put back on.”
As with any form of exercise, it’s also essential to keep up your water intake. In Veronika’s experience, many people wind up dehydrated during their winter workouts because they’re less inclined to feel like drinking when it’s cold. Science agrees: research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that the cold diminishes thirst by up to 40%.
“How much you should drink comes down to the amount that you sweat – not so much the air temperature,” says Kylie.
The best types of winter exercise
Once you’ve decided to exercise outdoors during the cooler months, all that’s left to decide on is the type of activity. An ideal form of exercise will keep you moving continuously, as it will help you maintain a steady body temperature.
Brisk walking or jogging are great ideas, and interval training with shortened breaks can also work well. Mixing up the type of exercises you’re doing between sets can be helpful to help reduce downtime, too.
“Instead of doing 10 squats then pausing for a minute, exercise a different muscle group during that rest time. For example, you could do 10 squats, followed by bicep curls or a plank,” suggests Kylie.
You may also like to consider cycling, hiking, group exercise (like bootcamp classes) or team sports. And don’t forget that daily activities like walking the dog, raking leaves or washing the car can also all count as exercise. Just remember to start small to build up your endurance and fitness.
Words by Jessica Mudditt
First published May 2022
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