Winter is when most people gain the most body fat and move backward on fitness goals. There are a few reasons why. It’s the holiday season, which means you’re exposed to an ever expanding and endless smorgasbord of treats and decadent meals that become hard to resist. And it’s cold and rainy and snowy, which means getting outside to stay active isn’t always high on your list of priorities. It’s nicer and cozier to remain inside. There’s also the fact that staying indoors is not not only more pleasant, it’s possible. You don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to. You can flip on the heat and have groceries delivered. You may not even have to go into the office—you work from home. Last but not least, there are days so brutal you’d rather eat your running shoes than head outside in them.
But you have to stay active. It’s not just more enjoyable to maintain your movement practices, it’s critical for your health—both mental and physical. Here’s how to stay active despite the cold winter weather.
Embrace the cold
To really make winter fitness stick, you have to embrace the cold. To embrace the cold, you must understand that cold is just a feeling. To go outside in cold weather, the promise of heat and warmth and soft blankets in the house behind you—this is true luxury. The cold poses no threat to your safety and security, only to your momentary comfort. And so you must go forth boldly into the cold. As the cold air hits your skin, you are losing body heat in an eternal exchange between you and your environment, but this is okay. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but it’s not going to hurt you. You must understand this.
You must understand that cold exposure will increase the activation of brown fat, a metabolically active type of adipose tissue that burns energy to keep you warm, thereby improving metabolic health. Understand that in order to grow, in order to benefit from any training modality, you must first feel discomfort. This is a law of nature that cannot be avoided. You must first feel the discomfort and then recover from it. When you are exposed to cold your body is learning to adapt to it; cold exposure is a training session just like lifting weights or running sprints. Think of it as a beneficial part of the process, and it won’t feel so bad.
For winter training to be truly enjoyable and sustainable, you have to have the right clothing. A good waterproof but flexible minimalist shoe. Some merino wool. A waterproof layer on top. Read the whole post for a good overview on how to dress for winter training.
Go for a daily walk in minimal clothing
Ideally you do it shirtless or in a T-shirt and shorts. You can even go barefoot. After all, remember what I said before: you are in no danger of dying from exposure. You can always return to a warm place. You will be fine. Keep that in mind and get walking.
This is a great way to acclimate yourself to cold weather activity. If you can go for a walk in minimal clothing when it’s cold, you’ll be able to do anything outside. Plus, as long as you’re moving, you won’t really get that cold. That’s the secret of cold exposure. Movement staves off subjective cold.
Build a home gym
“Not wanting to go out in the cold” is the perfect justification for building a home gym you can use for the rest of your life. And the beauty of the sunk cost bias means you won’t want to waste the hard earned money and time you sunk into the endeavor. When you have a home gym that you’ve put together according to your preferences and specifications, there’s no excuse not to stay active during winter. You can build an effective home gym regardless of how much you want to spend.
Engage in snow sports
I’m a big snowboarder personally—it just feels better on my knees—but any of the classic snow sports are admirable and effective ways to embrace the cold: skiing, cross-country skiing, ice biking, mountaineering, ice skating. The point is to get outside in the cold and engage in activities you can only do in the snow.
When I snowboard, I’m not all bundled up. I keep my limbs as exposed to the air as I can. Maybe I’ll just wear a waterproof top layer to avoid getting wet. I want to feel the wind chill as I rush down the mountain, and I want to get my internal engine going so hot that it extinguishes the cold.
Go snowshoeing as much as possible
For my money it is one of the best ways to traverse the snowy expanse. I haven’t done it much since I was a kid living in Maine. Back then, it was often the best way to get around, to explore during winter. We kids had a ton of freedom, rain or snow or shine. When the snow was feet deep and we weren’t content to sit around and play the video games and electronic devices that had yet to be invented, we had to snowshoe if we wanted to exercise that freedom.
I can’t do it much these days. Miami doesn’t get much snow, and snowshoeing doesn’t really work in sand. When I do hit the snow, I’m snowboarding. But man, snowshoeing is fantastic fun. You can climb and descend steep slopes. You actually have better traction than on normal ground. You can head off in between the trees, going where the normally-shod don’t dare to go, and really get around.
I wish I had to opportunity to snowshoe during winter whenever I wanted. If you do, take advantage. Go where it’s quiet and empty, the only sound you hear the satisfying crunch of the snowshoe touching down and digging in. There’s nothing like coming upon a babbling brook half frozen over, walking to the edge, confident you’ll be fine because you’re snow-shod.
It forces you into a different pattern of movement. You’re not quite as agile as you are in normal shoes. You have to think about what you’re doing and where you’re going. You have to be deliberate.
Sprint once or twice a week
Sprinting is the single best exercise to ward off the cold. For the first leg, you’ll be cold. The wind’s rushing at you and you’re really feeling it down to your bones. But then your blood starts pumping and your metabolic rate rises to the occasion. Suddenly you’re warm, you’re stripping off clothing, and you’re feeling fantastic. I do some of my best sprints in cold weather.
A sprint doesn’t have to be a sprint across flat ground. There are many sprint alternatives. You can sprint up hill. It can be on the bike or on the rower. You can do it in the pool or on the Versaclimber. The point is to sprint—move as quickly as you can until you start to slow down. Then you stop, rest, and recover until you can sprint again. It might be a minute before you can sprint again. Might be five minutes.
Get plenty of sunlight
The sunlight still matters. You may not be making much vitamin D from the paltry UVB available but you will be getting bright natural sunlight into your eyes and on your skin. This has powerful effects on your circadian rhythm, improving your sleep and subsequent resistance to the harmful effects of blue light after dark. The sun still matters even though it’s cold. It arguably matters even more because it’s more scarce than during spring and summer.
So even if it’s cold, I recommend training outside in the cold once or twice a week. Keep the warm clothing on as the workout proceeds, if you must, but the point is is to exercise outside in the cold. What this does is send a message to your nervous system that you can handle the stress of physical activity and exertion in cold weather. It can be a powerful stimulus to expend more energy, which is often one of our weak points in the colder months.
Grab all the sun you can.
Sauna to start
You know all about the health benefits of sauna, but a quick 10 minute sauna session before a workout is also the ideal way to prepare for the workout. It warms you up, physically, and warm tissues are more fluid, mobile tissues that are less vulnerable to injury. It also warms you emotionally. You’ll feel more energized and ready to take on the cold—which, by the way, won’t feel so cold anymore after a few minutes in the sauna.
Hot shower, tub, or bath when you’re done
You need to have something to look forward to after the workout. If you have a nice jacuzzi going or even just a hot shower or bath, the workout will feel much more manageable and be more rewarding. If you string enough of these “workout-jacuzzi” sequences together, you’ll come to associate the two. They’ll become inseparable in your mind and you’ll want to train more often so you can get the pleasure of the hot tub.
Staying active during winter has never been more important. It will help you avoid the pitfalls of the holiday season and get the New Year off to a great start.
What are your favorite ways to stay active in winter? How do you stay motivated when the weather won’t cooperate?