Winter’s notorious for putting even our best-laid fitness plans on ice. The chill tempts us to forgo the gym in favor of warm blankets and a cup of hot cocoa. And bulky fabrics and layers of clothing are more forgiving than bathing suits and shorts when it comes to carrying a few extra pounds. But even if it’s harder to force your body into action, it’s necessary. Aside from trimming waistlines, exercise helps lower blood glucose, which is especially useful during a season that has the highest A1C levels of the year.
So, how can you beat winter at its own game? Read on for indoor exercise options, sensible health cautions, and ways to embrace the big chill.
If you plan to exercise outside, you’ll need a winter-workout wardrobe that will help you walk the fine line between freezing and overheating. The key: layers that you can remove as your body begins to warm from exertion. Start with a base layer that will draw sweat from the body—look for the term “moisture-wicking” on labels.
Top that with another layer for added warmth. This doesn’t mean you have to bulk up. “The technology of the clothes is amazing,” says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese, MS, who says plenty of sporting-goods stores sell thin but insulated clothing. Finish with a breathable, windproof jacket, such as one made of Gore-Tex. Don’t forget to cover your hands and head, too.
Stash Your Supplies
For people at risk for hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), it’s smart to carry blood glucose meters, test strips, and fast-acting glucose gel or tablets. In winter you may need to take extra care. Devices such as meters, strips, and continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) may not work properly when the temperature drops too low. Prevent this by keeping your devices close to your body—say, in an inner pocket that will stay warm from your body heat. If you carry insulin, in a pump or vials or pens, make sure it doesn’t freeze.
Cover Your Mouth
Regularly huffing icy air can injure your lungs. “We weren’t designed for those extremes,” says Calabrese. “Stress to the lungs [through consistently exercising in cold air] will prematurely age their ability to filter oxygen and carbon dioxide.” Protect your lungs from cold, dry air by wrapping a scarf over your mouth and nose to keep the air you breathe moist. Inhaling frigid air can also narrow the airway, making it harder to breathe at maximum capacity—and putting people with asthma at risk for attacks. If you have breathing difficulties, talk to your doctor before exercising outside.
Be Heart Smart
With cold fronts come heart worries: Heart attacks are more frequent in winter. And the most dangerous winter exercise is a common one—shoveling. The cold weather sets the stage; with the increased blood pressure and higher heart rate that come from exercising in the cold, the heart has to work harder to pump blood. The motion itself—bending forward and lifting 10 to 20 pounds of snow on a shovel—puts additional strain on the heart. “Snow shoveling is an excellent workout,” says Calabrese, “but more people have heart attacks doing that than any other activity because they’re not conditioned for that heavy lifting of wet snow.”
Talk to your health care provider before attempting to shovel on your own. If you don’t get the OK, consider using a snowblower or hiring someone to plow your driveway and shovel your walks.
Mind Your Minutes
The government recommends 150 minutes of exercise each week, which is about a half hour of physical activity daily, five days a week. That said, “there are no brownie points for thinking, ‘I need to do 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity all at once,’ ” says Michael Mantell, PhD, a senior fitness consultant for behavioral sciences at the American Council on Exercise. Love walking outside for exercise but won’t last 30 minutes in chilly air? It’s OK to split the activity into three 10-minute bouts of exercise.
Time It Right
Winter mornings are chilly and streets often covered in ice or snow, while evenings are even colder and darkness comes early. The best time to exercise during the colder months is midday, when the sun’s at its warmest, ice has melted, and streets have been plowed. If you can’t help but work out in the dark, make safety your top priority. “Make sure drivers see you,” says Mantell. “Make sure what you’re wearing has lights on it.”
No matter the temperature while exercising, you lose moisture through sweating and need to replenish it by drinking water. Mountain climbers and other winter sports enthusiasts carry water under clothing to keep it from freezing.
Focus on Your Feet
In the drying air of winter, which zaps moisture from the skin, foot checks after exercise are important. Dehydrated skin tears more easily, leaving skin open to bacteria and infections, so inspect your feet before and after physical activity. Reduce your risk of irritation, blisters, and the moist environment bad bacteria and fungi love by wearing moisture-wicking socks and footwear that can handle water, snow, and slush. Waterproof boots, Calabrese says, are great for walking along snowy streets and trails.
Embrace the Indoors
Use the weather as your excuse to check out that fitness class you’ve been curious about, refresh your gym membership, or try activities such as mall walking, indoor rock climbing, or indoor sports.
Or turn your home into a gym. Invest in workout DVDs, and use dumbbells, resistance bands, exercise balls, or even household items such as soup cans and gallon jugs of water. “Exercise doesn’t mean weights. Exercise doesn’t mean a treadmill,” says Mantell. Some of the most effective exercises—push-ups and crunches, for example—don’t require any equipment at all. “Be active TV watchers,” adds Mantell. “Make sure the commercial
is the trigger for activity.”