Warming up to the cold: Staying active in any weather

Woman dressed warmly in layers and walking in a cold landscape using Nordic poles

Do cold, cloudy, snowy, or rainy days keep you inside? Are you waiting for warm, sunny weather to lure you outside and nudge you to become more active? You’re in good company, if so. But there are ways to get you outside and moving in the chilliest of temperatures. And staying active is essential for good health at any age.

Have you been feeling homebound?

I get an almost-daily weather forecast from my daughter, who lives in Washington, DC. For the last few months, the report usually goes like this: “Freezing, Arctic winds, some snow, chance of more snow, ice, cold, and very cold.”

It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy the winter months, but harsh weather keeps her trapped inside. She is a runner and enjoys hiking nearby trails, and bitter cold puts her motivation on ice.

Add her remote job and the shadow of COVID, and it makes staying homebound much easier. Of course, she has her kettlebells and resistance bands, and does home workouts for some exercise. But it’s not the same.

Like countless others, my daughter has trouble staying active outdoors when the extended forecasts call for bleak weather. I’m guilty too. I enjoy open water swimming in Florida, where I live, but when the Gulf waters dip below 70 degrees, even with a wetsuit, I stay onshore.

So, what can you do to warm up to the cold weather until spring and summer fully arrive and you can get back to your usual outdoor habitat? Here are three tips.

Join a fitness group

You are not alone in your cold war, and there is strength in numbers. Join a walking or running group or another outdoor activity with a team component. You are much more likely to get out and show up when others depend on your participation.

“Your teammates also are a way to increase social interactions, and the potential relations you make help you stay committed to fitness by surrounding yourself with other people actively working on their own fitness goals,” says David Topor, a clinical psychologist and the associate director for healthcare professional education at the Harvard-affiliated VA Boston Healthcare System.

This fitness tribe approach has helped me, as I recently joined an open water swimming group. My group motivates me to show up for evening and morning swims that I otherwise would skip.

Set a springtime goal

Nothing motivates more than a strict deadline. Sign up for a race, sign on to a couch to 5K program, or book an active adventure trip for May or beyond. This way, you will have to get outside more to be physically prepared. My daughter recently signed up for a half marathon, so she has to begin lacing up her running shoes. Plus, making a financial investment (and not wanting to waste money) is an additional motivator.

Embrace the cold

Instead of hiding from the cold, confront it head-on and take up a cold-weather activity like skiing (downhill or cross country), snowshoeing, skating, or heck, even the 2022 Winter Olympics’ favorite TV event: curling. This approach helps in two ways: it offers a new challenge and enables you to interact more with cold weather, so it feels less intimidating.

Many of these activities are on par with or even superior to traditional warm-weather aerobic exercises. For instance, a review of multiple studies found that skiing offered the same cardio benefit as indoor cycling. If you choose to try new cold-weather activities, your brain may benefit, too.

Exercising in cold weather may improve certain aspects of your fitness, like increasing your endurance.

“In colder temperatures, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, you sweat less, and expend less energy, all of which means you can exercise more efficiently,” says Dr. Adam Tenforde, an assistant professor of sports medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.

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