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Why exercising in cold can be more beneficial than in warm weather

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — It’s wintertime in Indiana and for the next few months we can’t escape the freezing temperatures. But that’s no excuse to neglect our health. Maintaining a fitness routine is a year-round commitment, and while it’s certainly harder to exercise in cold weather, with a little information and inspiration, it is possible. 

News 8 spoke with Dr. Libby Richards, a scientist at Purdue University. Richards provided tips on how we can embrace the winter as an opportunity rather than a barrier. She also discussed adventurous ways to incorporate physical activity with a list of activities that don’t even feel like exercise at all. 

Gillis: How do we help people embrace the winter months and view the season as an opportunity to try different activities?

Richards: So, we live in Indiana. We can’t avoid the winter. We’re not bears so we can’t hibernate through it, so I like to look at the winter weather as a new time to have a change of scenery, try activities that we just can’t do when it’s warm outside and think about the positives instead of focusing on the cold weather. 

Gillis: People sometimes get stuck in their habits and winter is the time–as you mentioned–is a time where we all want to stay indoors. It’s easy to cuddle up with a book. How can we help people view it in a different way? Because health behavior change is very difficult.

Richards: I like to think of physical activity as the closest thing to a fountain of youth as we’re ever going to get and the only way to make that work is if we are intentionally active all year round. So, not just when the weather is nice outside. One of the easiest things you can do is–especially if you haven’t started a regular fitness routine–would be just to start walking. We can walk in the winter. It doesn’t require any special equipment. You don’t have to train for it. Most of us are lucky enough to get out our front door and go for a walk. And you actually don’t have to do it for a very long time to get the health benefits of it. So, walking is just one example of a winter activity that we can start with. 

Gillis: There’s sort of a dose response that the American College of Sports Medicine…there is a dose response for health benefits. But really everything counts. We can’t just say if you don’t meet the criteria it doesn’t count. 

Richards: That’s a really good point. We now clearly know that any type of movement is better than no movement at all. So, even if that intensity that we referred to is light intensity–maybe your walking pace isn’t brisk–but you’re taking a more light walk, you’re going to get health benefits that are independent of weight loss. For example, you’re going to have an improved mood, you’re going to sleep better, you’re going to boost your immune system, you’re going to help your heart and lower your blood pressure, increase your muscle tone, improve your body composition. A lot of great things happen when we start moving as little as 20 minutes of walking every day. So, it’s not a huge commitment it’s just an intentional commitment. 

Gillis: Well, that’s interesting because the only thing I’ve been doing this winter so far is walking my dog a little bit extra. I enjoy it. It’s not heavy duty power walking. It’s just getting outside and I actually do it on a different terrain. I walk on grass and when it snows I get my winter boots on and walk in the snow. So, speaking of different terrain…that changes your stride and it changes your gait. Does that translate into more calorie burn?

Richards: It absolutely does. A few things happen when we’re active outside especially when it’s cold. It increases our metabolic rate when it’s cold outside because our body burns calories trying to keep us warm. So, we’re already going to see a little extra calorie burn just from being active outside. And when you add different terrain, for example snow, that increases the resistance of how we’re walking which gives us an additional boost in calories being burned and also works different muscle groups that you might not be working when on flat surfaces. Your core gets engaged more which is great for balance and muscle tone. The large muscles in your legs need to work a little bit longer. Our bum muscles get engaged a little bit more.

So, walking in the snow can have added benefits. And then you add to the fact that you have heavier shoes on like boots and also a heavier coat that also adds to the workout. So, something as simple as walking in the snow really is an excellent activity that doesn’t take a lot of commitment and pre-planning. 

Gillis: What if someone wants to try something more adventurous? Skiing or snowshoeing or snow tubing? Any recommendations for those who really are looking for new activities to do? What do you suggest?

Richards: I think it’s great that you mentioned snowshoeing because I’ve been thinking about that. I haven’t tried it yet, but the state parks and a lot of our local parks have a new initiative where you can go and rent snowshoes. So, we don’t need to invest in buying them. 

When you put on snowshoes think like Big Foot. You walk at your normal pace. You’re burning 3% more calories just because the snowshoes change your gait a little bit, it adds some resistance, but it also helps you walk more steadily in uneven terrain such as snow, or ice, or trails. So, if you want to try something new this is the year, this is the year to try out snowshoeing. It couldn’t be made any easier for us with the rental programs that are located throughout the state. 

Another thing is snow tubing. I just went snow tubing for the first time last week and I’ll tell you what, you don’t need kids to have fun going sledding or tubing. I squealed like I haven’t in a long time going down the ramp. It was so much fun and then you carry your tube or pull your tube up the hill so you’re engaging your core again, working your leg muscles, your heart and lungs are happy because they are working a little bit harder and just as you’re like “I’m done” you’re at the top of the hill and you get to go down again. Sledding and snow tubing are for everybody. If you’ve got kids, they are going to love it, but don’t feel like you can’t go as an adult. It was a whole lot of fun. 

Gillis: Last thing. Outdoor activities are especially important during this time of COVID-19. We don’t want to stay cooped up. We need that air flow and that fresh air. Can you speak to the importance of getting outside and getting some exercise while we’re at it?

Richards: Outdoor activities are known to be safer than indoor activities. There’s less of a chance of viral spread. The air movement keeps the virus at bay. But also our bodies are made for sunlight and fresh air. The only way we’re going to get that–even in the wintertime–is if we go outside. Even if you’re not very physically active when you’re outside just the fresh air and the exposure to nature has been proven to boost our moods and give us a more positive outlook. 

Then when you add being active outdoors, you’re getting an immune boost, you’re getting an improved mood, you’re getting a happier heart and lungs and also a really great opportunity to have some social time during this pandemic when it’s much safer to be outside with our friends and family than being indoors. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Facebook @DrMaryGillis.