Whether you spend a day hiking the mountain trails or an hour enjoying a speedy jog around your snow-covered neighborhood, winter exercise in the great outdoors can change your mood and mind.
“We’ve discovered that individuals who viewed winter as a time full of opportunities and not a restricting season experienced greater well-being: They had more positive emotions, greater satisfaction with life, and greater personal development,” says Kari Leibowitz, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford who studied the psychological benefits of embracing winter in Norway.
Leibowitz’s advice to maximize these winter workout advantages — and a few others? Demonstrate to yourself that you can bundle up and have a good time outdoors to establish a habit. Here are the other advantages of chilly sweat sessions, and how to attain them without freezing.
The Health Advantages of Outdoor Winter Exercise
The mere act of chilly exercise stimulates the body to release the exercise hormone irisin, which increases fat burning while positively improving activity in the brain’s reward system. “Being active safely in the cold combines two triggers for the release of irisin, exercise and shivering. The muscle contraction of both causes this,” says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., the author of The Joy of Movement. “It’s reasonable to assume that an outdoor workout — like a 20-minute run or an outdoor boot camp class — is enough to benefit.” And when your irisin levels are increased, your motivation increases as well.
Your body also has a mechanism for warming up your core by converting regular body fat — which is inactive — into what’s known as brown fat, which is metabolically active and actually burns calories. “Cold-induced activation of brown adipose tissue can occur within two hours of cold exposure,” says Robert H. Coker, Ph.D., a biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Experts can’t determine whether the lower the temperature, the faster the effect is triggered within that time frame.)
Plus, activation of that brown fat will remain elevated for at least one hour after you return from that winter hike or ski session. The overall result is a 5 percent increase in your total calorie expenditure for the day. Meanwhile, in a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the combination of cold exposure (a little below freezing) and exercise was found to facilitate an increase in a specific protein (referred to as PGC-1-alpha). This helps enhance fat oxidation and guard against obesity — after a single outing. “We might be able to ‘build up’ PGC-1-alpha over time in relation to cold exposure,” says Coker.
It is yet to be determined.” However, your winter fitness routine will benefit you on every occasion.
Not to mention, winter is the perfect climate to develop endurance. “I always prefer cold over heat for training,” says elite runner Mary Cain, the New York community manager for the Tracksmith brand. “The heat restricts your maximum potential, but autumn and winter provide an opportunity to challenge yourself with longer distances.” So if your usual run or ride or hike lasts 30 minutes, increase it to 40 or 50 minutes. “They might feel slightly better in the cold,” says Cain.
And when it’s snow time, let the change in your usual terrain inspire you instead of discouraging you. “I mix things up in winter with snowshoeing,” says Mirna Valerio, an ultrarunner and Merrell athlete who lives in Vermont. “You’re still making progress, but your body has to exert more effort to walk — or run if you’re using running snowshoes — through the texture and weight of the snow.”
How to Ease Into the Cold
Your perception of temperature and how comfortable it feels outside stems from the sensation on your skin. When you encounter cold air, your blood vessels narrow in your extremities in an attempt to minimize the amount of heat lost to the surroundings, says John Castellani, Ph.D., a physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. “As you repeatedly expose yourself to the cold by regularly being outdoors, that constriction response diminishes, which means essentially you experience increased blood flow and higher skin temperatures at the same air temperature,” says Castellani. Translation: The more frequently you engage in winter exercise sessions, the more accustomed you become to the cold, and you will adapt to it faster than those who only experience it during their brief dash from the door to the driveway.
Even if you’re an experienced cold-weather athlete, it’s important to prepare your body for a winter workout by performing some active stretches or other warm-up exercises indoors to generate some body heat. This way, you’ll be ready for action as soon as you step outside. And to avoid the possibility of having to stop and endure a long, chilly walk back home, make your winter workout a round trip, advises Castellani. “If you usually cover four miles, try doing a mile out and back a couple of times instead,” he suggests.
How to Dress for Winter Exercise
Layer Your Clothing
The most crucial thing to keep in mind when selecting attire for winter exercise is layering. For optimal warmth — without overheating or getting too sweaty — you’ll need three layers: base layer, middle layer, and outer layer.
The general guideline: Dress appropriately so that you feel slightly cold when starting your winter workout. “For instance, if you are engaging in outdoor activities in temperatures ranging from 40 to 50 degrees, a base layer with a lightweight coat and gloves will probably provide comfort, especially once you warm up,” states Laura Zimmerman, the Merrell’s director of product management.
According to Zimmerman, as the temperature drops by every 10 degrees, you should add something to keep warm: “Below 40 degrees, add a hat and a warmer coat or trousers. Below 30 degrees, add a mid-layer underneath a water-resistant coat. Below 20°F, add a winter shell and heavier protection for your extremities.” You understand the concept.
Winter Workout Must-Haves
Helly Hansen Tech Crew LS
Helly Hansen Tech Crew LS
Now, let’s talk about that base layer. “The most vital aspect is to have a breathable layer that sits directly against your skin to retain warmth from your body,” explains Laura Akita, a product manager specializing in women’s snow and climbing gear at The North Face. “Knitted fabrics will retain warmth better than woven ones.” Consider trying Helly Hansen’s Tech Crew LS (Available at Amazon) for a lightweight layer or The North Face’s Women’s Winter Warm Essential Crew Long Sleeve Shirt (Available at Dick’s Sporting Goods) for a level of warmth suitable for skiing — both are breathable, sweat-wicking knitted polyester fabrics.
The North Face Women’s Summit Series Breithorn 50/50 Hoodie
The North Face 50/50 Down Hoodie
The North Face
As for your external layer, the optimal option is finding one “that you never have to remove,” according to Akita — like a down jacket that can also breathe. The North Face’s Women’s Summit Series Breithorn 50/50 Hoodie (Available at The North Face) and Merrell’s Ridgevent Thermo Swing Jacket (Available at merrell.com) have breathable strips between down-filled ones to solve the puffer problem.
Safeguard Your Eyes
While you cover up completely, keep in mind the other important aspects that also need protection, specifically your eyes. “The challenges for eyes in winter include heightened brightness and reflected light coming from various directions,” says Jim Trick from Marblehead Opticians in Massachusetts.
To address that, your sunglasses should be similar to those utilized in sailing: polarized to reduce glare and, most importantly, fitting closely to your face to block light. “The brightness of your surroundings will also assist you in choosing the best lens color,” says Diego de Castro, the senior director of global marketing and brand management at Maui Jim. A gray lens will block the most light and preserve the truest colors when there is abundant sunlight and glare. “They will not block more UV rays than other colors, but they will result in reduced squinting,” says Trick. Maui Jim’s Twin Falls shades (Available at Amazon) meet all the requirements.
Shield Your Face
To protect your complexion, wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, covering all exposed skin, including commonly overlooked areas like the hairline and ears, as advised by dermatologist Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D. “Snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light, so you’re essentially exposed to the sun’s rays twice — once from above and again from the reflection,” she explains.
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