Harvard Women's Health Watch

Don’t let the cold put a freeze on your daily workout schedule

Keeping active in the winter months is crucial for wellness.

Workouts often fall by the wayside in winter. It’s cold and snowy, and if you’re like a lot of women, all you want to do is curl up under a blanket with a cup of hot tea and snack on some leftover holiday cookies.

“Based on my experience with clients, it seems like people go into hibernation mode from Thanksgiving until March,” says Dr. Beth Frates, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and director of wellness programming for the Stroke Research and Recovery Institute at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

But taking those months off from your regular workout routine can set back both your body and your health. More comfort food and fewer workouts may result in a few extra pounds under your sweater. And even if the scale doesn’t move, you may see changes to your body composition as you lose hard-earned muscle, which is replaced by fat. This swap is the reason why your pants might be tighter come spring, even if your weight is the same, says Dr. Frates.

A long-term health risk

These changes can affect your body over the long term. Muscle is also involved in metabolism, so when you lose muscle, your metabolic rate drops, says Dr. Frates. This makes you more prone to weight gain. Your muscles are also what help you maintain your independence as you age, keeping you strong and functional, so muscle loss is something you want to avoid.

Make a commitment this year to protect yourself from this winter health slide by getting moving, indoors or out. “Winter really is an incredible season,” says Dr. Frates. “There is nothing quite like the beauty of a snowy day.” Braving the chill to get outside in the sunshine during the dreary days of winter can also help you fend off winter blues and sleep more soundly at night.

But how can you pry yourself off your comfortable couch? Below are some tips to get you moving.

Change your mindset. Cold weather and rain or snow may seem like the perfect excuse to skip your daily workout. After all, you can’t go out in that kind of weather, can you? Yes, you can, says Dr. Frates. There really is no such thing as bad weather as long as you’ve got the right outerwear, she says.

Provided the sidewalks are clear and safe to navigate, you can fend off the chill with the right parka and boots (and socks, and hat, and gloves) when you head out for your usual morning walk.

Hands and feet always cold? Pick up a box of hand or foot warming packs to boost your comfort level.

Try something new. Winter can be a great time to try a new activity and to branch out socially. There are some great winter activities that are both social opportunities and a lot of fun. These include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, and — if you’re a little more adventurous — downhill skiing.

“Winter is a fantastic time to experiment with new activities as well as meet new exercise buddies,” says Dr. Frates. Your summer walking buddy may not be as interested in cross-country skiing, but a new friend might. Good places for beginners include family open skate times at local ice rinks, where you can typically rent skates, and local, smaller ski mountains.

Ski areas sometimes offer lower weekday rates that make it less expensive for you to try out a lesson on the bunny slope. Some golf courses offer cross-country skiing in the winter, which is an invigorating winter workout, says Dr. Frates.

Score a discount. After the holidays, many community centers, Y’s, and fitness clubs offer free trial memberships or discounts just in time for the annual wave of gym-goers committing to New Year’s resolutions. Take advantage by testing out some classes or trying a new gym. Some great options include yoga, Zumba dance workout classes, or even Pilates or barre. Call ahead to find out if a class is suited to your fitness level, says Dr. Frates.

Hit the mall. There are days where even the snuggest winter wear won’t help you get outside. This may be the case if the sidewalks are icy or snow-covered. On these days, get moving by paying a visit to your local mall. Many malls open their doors to walkers early in the morning before shoppers arrive. It’s a great place not only to walk, but also to make and meet up with friends.

However you get moving, staying active in the winter months ensures that the cold weather won’t have a chilling effect on your activity level. Stick with your exercise program throughout the holidays and the colder months, even when you’d just rather hibernate, and your body will thank you for it come spring.

Learn more about our
health content.