Exercising in winter provides health benefits, expert says

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A brisk walk or run outside can improve overall health

As cold temperatures continue to bear down on much of the country, those who resolved to lose weight in 2018 may be struggling to stay active. Reports indicate that as many as 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions -- including losing weight -- go unfulfilled.

While it’s tempting to hibernate indoors when temperatures are freezing, health experts say there are plenty of benefits to staying active during winter.

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, Galina Denzel, coauthor of “Eat Well. Move Well, Live Well,” explained that exercising outdoors during winter can help combat the “winter blues,” set the stage for a better night’s sleep, and impart a number of other health benefits

Benefits of outdoor exercise

Exercising outdoors can provide exposure to natural light, which can help keep symptoms of seasonal affective disorder at bay.

“As the days are shorter and there is less daylight, it's important to get blue light exposure, and the only natural way to get that is to be outdoors,” Denzel said.

Preventing yourself from living a sedentary indoor lifestyle during the cold winter months can also help you sleep better since moving outside provides light stimulation, which can help sync circadian rhythms, improve mood and energy, and promote restful sleep.

Brisk outdoor workouts can also help your nervous system and immune system perform better. Having to adapt to colder weather means exercising the small muscles responsible for raising the tiny hairs on our body.

“As we live in increasingly temperature controlled spaces indoors, that is a skill that is lost and leaves us vulnerable to the elements,” Denzel explained. “One doesn't think of training their skin, but it's the largest organ in our body and it carries out complex functions connected to our nervous system and our immune system.”

Outdoor workouts can also benefit your cardiovascular system since it needs to work harder to heat up the extremities and supply oxygen.

Non-traditional exercise

You don’t necessarily have to go for a run or engage in traditional exercise in order to reap the benefits of exercising outdoors. Daily "chores" like snow shoveling, or games like building snowmen and igloos can easily become a full body workout, Denzel says.

Consumers can also stay active outdoors by participating in activities such as skiing, cross country skiing, winter hiking, snowshoeing, and fat tire biking.

When the temperature or weather conditions aren’t conducive to outdoor exercise, consumers can create a simple exercise routine at home with minimal to no equipment.

Body weight exercises -- including core strengthening, yoga, push-ups, planks, squats, lunges, etc -- can be performed anywhere without equipment, says Dr Brian Babka, sports and exercise medicine physician, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group.

“A very simple home gym can be made with rubber/elastic bands, suspension straps (like TRX), jump rope, and a foam roller,” he said.

Technology can also help you stick to your winter workout goals. Apps like Vivo provide cardio, strength, and mobility workouts, as well as playlists and nutrition plans.

Dress appropriately

Before heading out for a winter workout, be sure to dress accordingly -- ideally, in layers.  

“My personal favorites are base layers made from merino wool, or other natural fiber base layers,” Denzel said. “It's better to have a light breathable base layer and another light piece of climate controlled clothing on top than heavy and bulky clothes that limit movement.”

It’s important to have several layers in colder weather, so that you can take one off if you get overheated. Choose shoes that are light and flexible, and opt for a pair of wool socks.

Also be sure to cover your mouth and nose to protect the upper airway from cold air and be sure to wear a hat and gloves. Staying hydrated is also important, since it's easy to get dehydrated in winter.

Finally, remember to stay safe. Since there is less light during winter, Babka recommends lights and reflective outerwear -- especially if you exercise in the morning or evening. Choose plowed routes or groomed trails and always be aware of your surroundings.

Sometimes you may need to ditch the headphones in order to be more attentive to your surroundings.

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