How To Stay Active in the Winter

For many people, winter is a special time of the year filled with holidays, snow and ski vacations, but it is also a season that can bring up health hazards like asthma, influenza or seasonal affective disorder. If you are not someone who naturally seeks the outdoors when the temperature drops, you should make an effort to stay active so that you can lower the likelihood of becoming ill or injured.

Many people tend to stay indoors in the wintry months, but this kind of sedentary lifestyle poses some big risks. First of all, you are likely to gain weight and lose muscle which will raise the risk of many health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Most people eat more during the holiday season and exercise less. You may also be setting yourself up for serious injuries like a herniated spinal disc or knee dislocation due to weaker muscles.

In winter, you may also find yourself having more difficulty falling or staying asleep.  The shortened day as well as less physical exertion can disrupt your sleep cycle and usher in insomnia. Many people also experience seasonal affective disorder or depression in the darker months which can impact sleep quality.

How Your Body Changes in the Winter

Human beings evolved in a four season environment, so it is hardly surprising that our bodies change as it gets colder or hotter. Some of these changes are easy to see, including drier skin and runny noses, but others are much more difficult to detect.

  • Blood pressure increases—in an effort to maintain your core body temperature, your blood vessels will constrict.  This leads to higher blood pressure and, consequently, your heart has to work harder. That is why you are more likely to have a heart attack in the winter.
  • Less blood flow to your brain—as your blood vessels constrict, less blood flows to the brain. This is why you may experience more headaches, including migraines, in the winter months.
  • Serotonin levels drop—in the winter, your brain produces more serotonin transport proteins known as SERT. SERT transports more of the neurotransmitter serotonin into the nerve cell which prevents it from interacting with certain receptors in the brain that enhance mood. This is one of the reasons why mood drops in the winter.
  • Cholesterol rises—one of the key changes in winter is shorter days and less sunlight. Less exposure to sunlight means less vitamin D which is made from cholesterol. As less vitamin D is made, more cholesterol remains in the blood leading to atherosclerosis.
  • More brown fat—fat that helps retain body heat accumulates in the winter.  Although this brown fat tends to disappear when it gets warmer again, this winter weight does pose some health risks.
  • More aches—in the winter, you are more likely to experience more aches and stiffness.  This is primarily a result of muscles tensing up in an effort to conserve body heat. This may contribute to bad posture as your neck and spine are under additional strain.

Winter Activity Recommendations

Many of the ways that your body responds to the cold can be counteracted by engaging in regular exercise. Not only will this help you maintain your health from the warmer times of the year, but it should help prevent many of the illnesses and injuries that are more common in the cold.

  • Swimming—if you live near an indoor pool, you may want to make it a habit to swim a few laps on a regular basis. Swimming is a full-body, cardiovascular form of exercise that is ideal for people with joint pain or anyone who wants to relax tense muscles.
  • Mall walking—many people take advantage of the climate control and well-maintained walkways of shopping malls to get in a few minutes of walking.  Some malls even have walking programs, making this form of activity a benefit for you physically as well as socially.
  • Outdoor jogging—if the weather is favorable and you want to take a break from staying indoors, you may want to go for a run or walk. Not only will this help you burn some calories, but it should help your respiration; if you suffer from asthma it is a good idea to take a break from recirculated air that is high in dust and other particulates.
  • Visit the gym—book a membership at a local fitness center so that you can lift weights or run on a treadmill. If the weather is permitting, you can make it a regular habit. If you really want to get serious about improving your health, you may want to hire a personal trainer to motivate you.
  • Build a snowman—it may seem a little childish to go outside to play in the snow, but you will be doing your body a lot of good. You will burn a lot of calories building snow people and forts which will, in turn, boost your mood. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight should also improve your respiration and body fat content.
  • Hot yoga—if you have no desire to spend time in the cold, then you might find hot yoga a welcome exercise alternative.  It is advisable to start with regular yoga until you feel conditioned enough to withstand the additional strain of holding poses for extended periods in high heat. Before signing up for hot yoga, check with your physician to see if you are healthy enough.
  • Indoor sport—if you are capable of playing a sport like volleyball or racquetball, then you should try to play on a regular basis. These kinds of indoor sports are outstanding ways to stay in shape and boost mood but play casually and for entertainment value—you want to avoid injuries.
  • Home gym—your home is where you will spend most of your time, so it makes sense to put some exercise equipment in it. Whether you prefer free weights or a stationary bike, make it a habit to put them to good use.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information