Increased exercise is a popular New Year’s declaration, but it’s challenging to get started off on the right foot when it’s freezing for the first couple of months of the year.
You’re not alone.
In 2003, researchers found that people worked out eight minutes per day less in winter.
“In the winter, we want to stay inside. It’s cold. We don’t want to move our bodies,” said Katie Peters, a personal trainer and owner of Underground Training in Southold.
The problem is that by April you may feel you’ve missed your window of opportunity. While it’s never too late to start living a healthier life, being productive in winter can give you a running start.
“Exercising will ward off or prevent illnesses because you have increased blood flow, which helps move things around the body and get white blood cells throughout the body to fight off any viruses,” said Jill Schroeder, owner and personal trainer at JABS in Cutchogue.
One study of more than 1,000 adults found that physical activity could reduce the severity of cold symptoms. And Schroeder also highlights the mental health aspect.
“We’re all stressed during these COVID times and with darker days,” she said. “It helps boost your mood and keeps you more positive with those endorphins.”
Working out in the winter is possible and even fun. But Peters and Schroeder say you’ll want to add a few layers to your routine.
How cold is too cold?
People ski and snowboard in sub-zero temperatures, and you may see someone running in chilly conditions. But if you can see your breath as you pant, is it really OK to be working out outside?
That answer depends on various factors, including personal preference. Peters takes workouts inside when the mercury dips below 30 degrees, citing injury risk and her lack of desire to trip and fall on the cold, potentially icy ground.
Schroeder says mindfulness and common sense are key.
“If there are frostbite warnings, you can still go out as long as you are dressed appropriately, but be mindful of how much time you spend out there,” she said.
Early frostbite symptoms include a tingling feeling and numbness of the skin.
Dress for success
If you’re going to brave the cold for an outdoor workout, you’ll want to plot your wardrobe as carefully as you plan your route to avoid frostbite and injury.
The first layer should be a shirt and pants made of moisture-wicking fabric rather than cotton.
“Cotton is going to trap moisture,” Schroeder says. “You don’t want that wetness from your sweat to stay on your skin. This will make you feel cold and damp and will not be helpful in keeping you warm and insulated.”
A wind-resistant coat can keep skin from getting numb and irritated. You can also layer on additional pants over your moisture-wicking bottoms.
Warm socks, gloves, a scarf and a hat can further protect areas of skin you’d normally keep bare during a summer run.
“Your ears are prone to feeling the cold temperature and we lose a lot of heat out of the top of our heads,” Schroeder said.
The terrain can be icy in the winter. Schroeder says wearing a trail sneaker can help mitigate slip risks, but you’ll still want to keep an eye out for black ice as you run.
Stretching is important regardless of the weather, but Schroeder notes it’s especially essential come winter.
“Your body has to work harder when you work out in colder temperatures because it has to work harder to regulate the body temperature, so you want to make sure you do some simple stretches just to get the blood flowing and prep for the run or workout you are going to do outside,” she said.
Dynamic quad and hamstring stretches, heel kicks and knee hugs are all good moves to include in your warmup.
Find a tribe
Working out with others through a group class or with a personal trainer can hold you accountable, which can be especially helpful in the winter when the desire to move is slim-to-none.
“It’s dark in the morning and when you go to bed,” Peters said. “It’s harder to stay motivated. That’s why I am a big believer in having somewhere to go or people to support you … it’s a good way to keep that motivation going when your mind is telling you, ‘Just stay home. It’s warm and cozy here.’”
The social aspect can’t be understated, either, especially when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is prevalent.
“We’re humans, and we crave social interaction,” Peters said. “To be able to get out of your house, even for 30 or 45 minutes, is a really good thing to do for your mental and emotional health.”
That said, everyone’s comfort levels amid the current surge in COVID cases are different. Peters says some gyms, including Underground Training, are offering virtual options. She also loves mindbody, a service that helps people find virtual and in-person classes within a certain radius.
“You can find classes in your area or even take a virtual one in California,” Peters said. “It’s a cool thing to use right now.”
When to take a sick day
Once you get into a routine, you may not want to break your streak of sticking to workouts. But winter brings cold and flu season, plus COVID is still prevalent. While it’s possible to work out when you’re sick, Schroeder says it’s important to listen to your body and avoid exercising out with a fever.
“I would forgo exercising until you no longer have a fever for 24 hours,” she said. “If you just have mild cold symptoms, you’re probably OK to work out.”
Schroeder may need to reduce intensity — that’s OK. And avoid group classes and follow CDC COVID-19 guidance on testing and quarantining if you are not feeling well.