Don’t be deterred — winter can be a great time for outdoor activities, says Keri Denay, a family and sports physician at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“People should not shy away from exercising in the cold. This is a fantastic time to explore outside and try new things,” she says, maybe even a time to embrace your inner child. “It’s snowing here in Michigan right now and my 4-year-old twins are out playing in the snow.”
Winter activities are some of the best ways to get fit, and as counterintuitive as it might sound, exercise can sometimes be even more pleasant in the cold. As long as you’re dressed properly and moving, it shouldn’t be too hard to stay warm.
“You have to be exercising at a super low level to not overcome cold temperatures with the body heat you’re producing with exercise,” says Cara Ocobock, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame who has studied metabolism in Finnish reindeer herders.
“A lot of people have a misconception that your body has to work harder to stay warm in the cold, but in terms of the physiology of it, there really isn’t a tremendous difference for exercising in the cold,” says Mike Bracko, an exercise physiologist and skating and conditioning coach at the Hockey Institute in Calgary.
The idea that exercising in the cold burns more calories than exercising in the heat or more temperate climates doesn’t hold up, Ocobock says. It’s true that your body will expend more energy to stay warm in the cold, but only if you’re standing around and not moving. “If your body is keeping itself warm with the exercise you’re doing, it no longer has additional burn,” she says. Brown fat, a type of adipose tissue that burns in response to mild cold exposure, increases the body’s metabolic rate, but “it burns only to produce heat. You don’t burn it [when you] run a mile,” Ocobock says.
Going to a cold gym that keeps the temperature at 50 degrees or lower won’t prod your body to burn more fat, as is sometimes claimed, but it could benefit your workout nonetheless, Ocobock says.
“When you exercise in the cold, you can potentially push yourself harder and exercise longer or with more intensity without having to stop due to getting too hot or sweating too much,” Ocobock says. You could end up burning more calories, she says, “not because the cold is inducing you to do so, it’s just allowing you to exercise longer without overheating.”
Another factor that could make a difference, Ocobock says, is that the environment you encounter during cold winter months may cause you to burn more calories while exercising outside, simply because of the nature of the activities. “Shoveling snow is one of the most calorically intensive activities you can do,” Ocobock says.
Similarly, walking through the snow will take more effort and energy than a stroll that doesn’t require trudging through it, and snowshoeing burns more energy than walking or running because you’re hauling the added weight of the snowshoes. But keep in mind that going from being sedentary to doing especially strenuous activities can be risky — every winter people die of heart attacks shoveling snow, and you can hurt yourself doing snow activities if you jump in too quickly.
Because you’re simultaneously trying to stay warm while potentially generating a lot of body heat, it’s extra important to dress properly. In the cold, “We want people to dress in layers no matter what they’re doing,” says John Castellani, a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.
Start with a base layer — something you wear next to your skin. “You want it to be snug, but not skintight,” Castellani says. The purpose of the base layer is to wick moisture away from your skin so that it doesn’t build up there. “You never want to wear cotton against your skin, because it holds on to water and will create greater heat loss,” leaving you chilled, he says.
Instead, choose something like wool or polypropylene that’s designed as a base layer and will stay dry against your skin. (Most outdoor clothing companies sell clothing specifically made for this purpose).
Next you want an insulating layer — fleece, wool, down or some other material that will keep you warm
Finally, you’ll need an outer layer — something to protect you from wind and precipitation — meaning rain, sleet or snow.
“This last layer is there to protect you from the outside elements,” Castellani says. In some cases, a coat that has both insulation and a water- and windproof outer layer can serve as both of the second two layers. But if you’re going to be exercising hard enough to sweat, you’ll want to make extra sure that you have the option to take layers off and on as you get warmer or colder.
Don’t forget a hat and gloves, and if it’s especially cold or windy, a face covering (a covid-19 mask can be great for this purpose).
One of the most dangerous things that can happen while exercising in the cold is that you get warm and sweaty while you’re exercising, and then when you stop or are slowed down, the moisture you’ve build up through sweating makes you vulnerable to getting chilled.
“I’ve run many times in the cold, and gotten very sweaty,” Castellani says. That’s all fine and good as long as he keeps going, he says. “But what happens if halfway out, I turn my ankle and now I’m sweaty?”
If he has to hobble home, he’ll no longer be generating as much body heat, and now he’s damp and vulnerable to developing hypothermia.
For this reason, he recommends two things even if you have set out with all the right clothing.
First, keep your effort moderate to avoid sweating heavily if there’s a possibility that you might get stuck out in the cold.
Second, be strategic so that you can cope if you do end up slowing down or being left out in the cold while sweaty.
If you’re going out for a four-mile run in the extreme cold, “instead of going out two miles and then back two miles, go one mile out and one back a couple of times so that you’re not so far from home if you get too cold,” he says.
If you’re going out in extreme cold, it’s also a good idea to go with a buddy, so if one of you gets hurt or too cold, you’ll have help. If you’re going to be out in the cold for a while after your workout, it’s a good idea to have dry clothes to change into.
So what activities are good to try during the winter months? If you’re looking for a great workout that’s also a pleasant way to be outside, consider cross-country skiing (also called Nordic skiing).
“It’s probably the exercise where a person would burn the most calories, because you’re using so many muscle groups at once,” Bracko says.
You tend to burn more calories cross-country skiing than running, because you’re using so many more muscle groups.
“Every time you’re pushing off with your poles, you’re using all these muscles in your arms, shoulders and core,” Bracko says. Cross-country skiers are famous for being some of the fittest athletes in the world. They typically have very high VO2 maxes, a measure of aerobic capacity, Bracko says.
Learning to cross-country ski can take some practice, but snowshoeing requires little skill and is an easy way to get out and exercise even in a lot of snow. It can be pretty strenuous, especially in deep snow, Ocobock says, which makes it a great workout. Many people snowshoe with ski poles, which can add some upper body muscles to the workout.
Alpine, or downhill, skiing, is less aerobic than cross-country skiing or snowshoeing — gravity pulls you down a hill, after all — but it can definitely give your leg muscles a good workout and make you feel the burn in your thighs. A full day of skiing on the mountain can end up being a pretty intense workout if you’re skiing hard, Bracko says.
“You also get the thrill of the downhill and the feeling of going fast without much friction,” he says.
Ice skating is another option in many cold weather places. A lot of communities are making an extra effort to keep outdoor skating facilities available during the pandemic, says Denay, who in addition to her medical credentials is an accomplished figure skater. Ice skating is a really wonderful winter pandemic activity, she says: “It’s something you can do safely with friends and family, because you can do it with masks and social distancing.”
During the pandemic, Bracko says, he has seen more people playing informal hockey games out on ponds or other outdoor ice than ever before. Playing hockey can involve some intense, anaerobic bursts of exercise. Even just skating around on a pond doing hockey moves is good exercise.
“Hockey is a great sport for burning calories, but there’s also the huge benefits of camaraderie and friendship,” Bracko says.
Finding an outdoor activity you can share with friends can also be good for your mental state, after so many months cooped up inside. As long as you can keep an appropriate distance, most outdoor activities are a pretty safe choice. If you need more reasons to get outdoors, studies show that simply going outside and being in nature can boost your mood, and sunshine (if you can find it) boosts your vitamin D levels.