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Stay fit, healthy even in winter weather

By Lisa Ziegel

It is very tempting to use cold winter weather as a reason to stay inside and stay warm or to hide under extra layers of clothing and forget about fitness goals, at least until spring arrives. However, letting cardiovascular and strength gains decline over a few months can not only make it harder to get back on track when you are ready to resume your regimen, it can also wreak havoc with your metabolism due to muscle atrophy, where muscle mass actually "shrinks" from disuse at rate of about 50 percent of the time over which it was gained1 . Since muscle mass is a primary driver of your metabolism, the calories you were taking in while you were doing resistance training are now being stored as fat, resulting in extra "padding" that we might find useful if we were hibernating in the wild like some animals. Obviously, this fat storage doesn't do us humans much good. In addition, your cardiorespiratory fitness will decline to the point that any activity above low-moderate intensity will seem much harder.

Another good reason to stay fit during the season is to avoid the risk of heart attack or stroke that can occur due to the cold weather combined with the need to perform sudden vigorous activity while braving the elements, such as digging your car out of the snow or shoveling it off a driveway or path. In fact, there are physiological reasons for this, as detailed by Tracy Stevens, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association: In cold weather the blood vessels constrict in response to the cold and contract to allow for extra blood flow for a demanding task, such as snow shoveling. In a person with risk factors for heart disease, such as high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, this is a bad combination because the plaque in the arterial walls can be disrupted, causing blood to clot, which in the worst case, can lead to a heart attack2.

So what can you do to stay fit and stay motivated during the coldest months? You could go to an indoor gym, which is a great alternative when the weather is just too wild. But it is always great to get outside and enjoy the wonders of your surroundings when they are enveloped in snow. Besides, it's also a good way to avoid the germ-filled indoors, which tends to get overheated in the winter, making it easier for you to pick up an unwelcome winter illness! So here are some great outdoor fitness activities:

  • Walking/running — A brisk outdoor walk or run can perk up your spirits if you suffer from the winter doldrums. Apart from the proper clothing and dressing in layers (see below for info on that), you don't need any special equipment. However, you do need to be aware of the footing if there's snow and ice. One tip is to wear sunglasses or goggles with a yellow tint to the lenses. This will help you see spots in the snow where there are bumps or dips you will want to avoid to reduce the chance of falling. Try to find trails in parks or public places designated for walking or running or if not available, seek a path with loose snow piled at a lower height and minimum of packed, icy terrain. Start out slowly to get used to the resistance of the snow against your legs. Although this is a great way to strengthen leg muscles and hip stabilizers, if you overdo, you may get really sore afterward! Make sure to wear moisture-wicking, warm socks for when your shoes get too wet, and for better traction you might consider ice cleats, which are like tire chains for your feet. There are different types, some with small cleats, others with a strap-like construction, which may be better if you are traveling on pavement or "black ice" as cleats may wear or break on this type of surface.
  • Snowshoes — Modern snowshoes allow the hiker to ambulate in rougher terrain and deeper snow as well as up and down hills. Add a pair of Nordic walking poles, and you have an excellent cardio-endurance building, calorie-burning workout for all levels of fitness, and even better, the entire family can participate. Added bonus: You can run in snowshoes and even compete in snowshoe races.
  • Cycling — Yes, you can cycle in the snow, as treacherous as that sounds. The technique may be a little different than cycling in milder conditions, but if common sense and proper precautions are practiced, this can be another fun way to get some outdoor activity. Primarily, learning how your bike behaves in different road conditions can help you in handling it safely. Black ice (an invisible layer of ice that sits on top of road pavement) is particularly difficult and should be avoided if possible (a thin layer of fresh snow is easier to navigate). Maintaining a slow speed and braking gently well ahead of where you plan to stop can help avoid sudden spills. Steering from the mid-section of your body rather than trying to turn with just the arms helps avoid turning too fast. Special tires are available for use in icy conditions, although they offer less support in deeper snow, but letting a little air out of the tires may help in adding a bit of traction. And, of course, never go out without your helmet! The website has everything you need to know about riding in the winter, including equipment tips and input from ice-biking enthusiasts from all over the world!

The activities above are suitable for all levels of fitness, but if you are a beginner, it should be obvious that you should proceed cautiously and at a gradual pace. There are groups in each community that you can join, and most welcome beginners. Or, recruit some friends, co-workers, and/or family members to join you. Many larger sporting goods stores offer classes or education about the equipment they sell and can point you in the right direction.

Whether you are just starting out, or you are a seasoned runner/walker, snowshoe or biking aficionado, the proper clothing is essential. Start with moisture-wicking undergarments and base layer, a warm fleece middle layer, and top off with an insulated outer layer, plus head protection, gloves, and moisture-wicking socks. If your activity is going to be moderate to vigorous, dress as if it is 20â—¦ warmer out to avoid overheating. Start out facing the wind so you are less likely to be chilled when you are returning with the wind coming up behind you. Always warm up slowly and realize you may tire more quickly as you are working harder against the elements, which also means you will be burning more calories and need to make sure you have fueled up and hydrated properly beforehand. Finally, if you have any risk factors for heart disease, get checked and a doctor's OK before you undertake cold weather activity.

With a bit of "gearing-up" and a mindset to stick with it, you can get through a difficult few months and come out shining when the weather warms up.