Why exercise in the cold weather? Some people claim it’s to burn more calories. Don't get attached to that theory quite yet, though; the difference may be minimal. One thing is for certain: You burn more calories exercising outside in below-freezing temperatures than if you’re not exercising at all. The real bonus is that outdoor workouts help combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a fancy way of saying winter blues.
Diana Proemm, who is the owner of Bigger Picture – RT and leads adventure therapy trips for women, has seen the impact of outdoor winter fitness on her clients. "Winter can be brutal on your mental health," says Proemm. "[We don’t get] a lot of time outside or sunlight to keep the spirits lifted. Getting outside in the fresh air, even for just 30 minutes, aids in getting your blood circulating and helping bring back positive thoughts." Taking a walk is the easiest way to do this, but might not keep you warm enough in below-freezing temperatures.
High-intensity exercise is the way to go on colder days. Choose endurance (long and slow) over speed (short and fast) this time of year and keep your body moving once you start. Running, cross-country skiing, ice skating and snow shoeing are great winter activities. You can also find an outdoor stairway to walk up and down while listening to your favorite tunes or audiobook. Aim for 20 to 60 minutes for any of these activities.
Circulate Your Blood With a Circuit
You can also do a workout circuit, which may keep you warm enough to walk. Combine jogging or walking with various body-weight exercises to keep your heart pumping and add variety to an otherwise routine run or walk outside. Stop jogging or walking every five to 10 minutes, but keep moving with the following resistance exercises—perform each one for 30 to 60 seconds and then continue your run or walk. Rotate through each exercise during the intervals until you’ve performed them each one to three times.
Warm-up - Before you head out into the cold, get your joints moving indoors. Do 10 to 20 shoulder rolls in each direction, march in place for one minute, rotate your torso back and forth five to 10 times and take some deep breaths to prepare your body for your workout.
Push-ups - Find a park bench. Place your hands shoulder-width apart. Bring your sternum toward the top of the bench as you inhale. Stop when your elbows are at 90 degrees and then push away with an exhale. Move inch by inch through the movement to maximize muscle involvement.
Squats - Stop anywhere and place your feet hip-width apart. Keep your spine neutral and squat down to touch the ground. Keep even weight in all parts of your feet and equal weight on each leg.
Lunges - Take a giant step forward and lower your body toward the ground while keeping your front knee over your front toe (if it isn’t, you stepped too far or not far enough). Alternate legs as you travel forward. Keep your abdominals engaged and head up tall as you look forward.
V-sits - Find a park bench or place to sit off the ground. Place your hands by your sides to hold on and straighten your legs while you lean back so your body is in a straight line. Bring your knees up to your chest into a crunch. Keep your neck aligned with your spine by looking at the sky. Exhale as you crunch in and inhale as you return to the straightened position.
Sample Circuit: Warm-up, jog 5 minutes, push-ups 30 seconds, jog 5 minutes, squat 30 seconds, jog 5 minutes, lunges 30 seconds, jog 5 minutes, v-sits 30 seconds, jog 5 minutes
Get Guidance and Companionship
If you like these winter workout ideas, but want to be with other people and have someone else guide the workout, there are companies like FLOW Outside in Bozeman, Mont., with unique offerings. For example, Jen Brick DuCharme, the owner and an ACE Personal Trainer and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), offers "Snowga," which is a snowshoe outing with yoga, Winter Outdoor Fitness, which combines snowshoeing, walking and/or body-weight strength training, and outdoor women's retreats. You can also search on the ACE Website for health and fitness professionals in your area that lead outdoor boot camps.
Motivation to Play Outside
Your attitude can make or break whether you get outside in below-freezing temps. It’s often the only thing holding us back.
"There seems to be a mindset that in the winter people go inside to exercise and only go outside to play. I feel like these elements (fitness, playfulness and the outdoors) can be combined into an invigorating, motivating and effective fitness routine. I encourage everyone to give it a try," says Brick DuCharme.
Proemm offers this suggestion for those who fear the winter weather: "I used to trick myself and say that I was going to go for a 10-minute walk. Once I got outside and started breathing the fresh air, I would end up walking longer. It would be a little chilly at first, but once my body warmed up and the endorphins started kicking in, I would be out for 30 minutes."
More Winter Exercise Tips
- Dress in layers. "You're only as good as your gear," says Brick DuCharme.
- Bring tissues—a runny nose is like a humidifier (that’s a good thing).
- Keep moving once you start exercising.
- Stop if you have numbness or loss of feeling in any body part.
- Stay indoors if it is below 5 to 10 degrees, windy or rainy.
- Be extra cautious if you have asthma, poor blood circulation or heart conditions.