Keep Exercising, Even When It's Cold

CC BY 2.0. Mark Berbezier – Running in the snow

Just because the outdoor temperature has dropped doesn't mean you should stop getting out there.

The outdoor thermometer read -13C (8F) this morning, but I still bundled up my kids and marched them across town to deliver their youngest sibling to daycare. It was a chilly walk, but we soaked up the sunshine, clambered over snow hills left by the plows, and felt altogether invigorated by the time we got home. It's my favorite way to start the day.

Just because the weather outside is frightful doesn't mean you should stop getting out there. In fact, science shows that cold-weather exercise can be quite beneficial. Contrary to what many people think, it is not dangerous; more people are injured exercising in heat than in cold. The New York Times reported,

"The problem with exercising in the cold, exercise physiologists say, is that people may be hobbled by myths that lead them to overdress or to stop moving, risky things to do."

Overdressing is a bad idea because, first, it hampers your ability to move freely and perform athletic movements properly; and second, it causes you to sweat, become damp, and eventually chilled. In the words of Dr. John Castellani, an exercise physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, "You should feel cool before you start exercising. You should not feel comfortable."

Keeping moving is also key. The initial feeling of cold will vanish as you start moving. The body generates an astonishing amount of heat, so as long as you're active, you are not at risk of hypothermia, said Dr. Timothy Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town who supervised Lewis Pugh's one-kilometre swim through frigid Arctic waters in 2007.

In fact, you might even perform better in the cold. Heat can hamper athletic performance because the body has to work so hard to counteract it; whereas when conditions are cool, the body can focus on training and performance, rather than temperature regulation. Mike Jett, lab director in exercise physiology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told Medium, "Working out in an intentionally hot room does not make sense from a performance standpoint." Better to go the other way.

Arctic swims may not be your style of workout, but a cold-weather run, boot camp in a frozen park, or a snowy mountain bike ride are good substitutes. You'll notice how great you feel afterwards, as cardio in the cold is a sure-fire way to boost serotonin, top up vitamin D, and fend off Seasonal Affective Disorder.

You'll lose weight more effectively, too, than if you were exercising in the heat. Dr. Shingo Kajimura of the University of California, San Francisco, has studied the effect of cold-weather exercise on metabolism, specifically fat cells. He has found that shivering is good because it burns a lot of calories. Also,

"Spending time in cool or cold environments converts some of the body’s fat cells from unhealthy 'white' fat to heat-producing, metabolically active 'beige' fat. Kajimura says this conversion seems to help the body acclimatize to cold environments and increases resting energy expenditure — the amount of calories a person burns just sitting around."

If that's not incentive enough, here's one last fact. Exercising in the cold boosts your immune system. The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research did a study that found that regular outdoor exercise in cold weather reduces the risk of flu susceptibility by 20 to 30 percent.

So don't be afraid to get out there. Enjoy these winter months that have early this year and stay active. Your body and mind will thank you for it.