Why you should exercise outside in winter
Even for the fittest person, training outside in winter is a challenge. Many of us would prefer to workout indoors, or worse, stay curled up on the couch and not exercise at all. While the warmth of the gym may be comfortable and convenient, there are a number of compelling reasons to rug up and brave the elements.
It burns more kilojoules
While you may not enjoy it at the time, embracing the chill can counteract the tendency to stack on extra weight during winter. A recent study by Maastricht University in The Netherlands suggests that simply being cold burns kilojoules by stimulating metabolically active brown fat.
The researchers found that shivering can increase your metabolic rate as much as fivefold, with 15 minutes of shivering generating the same amount of hormones associated with brown fat activation as an hour of moderate exercise. Studies in Australia conducted by Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research have reported similar findings. When you throw exercise into the mix you’re going to burn even more.
Your body moves differently outdoors
Outdoor exercises tend to be more strenuous than their indoor counterparts. When you run outside, for example, you’re body must adapt to changes in in the environment, such as hills and wind drag, which works muscles you wouldn’t use on a treadmill. In studies comparing the the exertion of running on a treadmill and the exertion of running outside, it was found that those who ran outdoors expended more energy to cover the same distance.
Increases your vitamin D
When we spend less time outdoors our body misses out on vital nutrients, such as vitamin D, which is primarily derived from spending time in the sun. A 2015 study by Deakin University of more than 11,000 adults across the country, found that nearly one third of Australians are suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. The report also noted that the deficiency was much more prevalent during winter than other times of the year.
Vitamin D provides a range of health benefits, with studies suggesting it supports calcium absorption, bone health, protein synthesis, hormone synthesis, immune function and cell regeneration. These vital functions are essential for all individuals, particularly athletes, as there is some (although limited) evidence that sufficient vitamin D can reduce the risk of stress fractures and muscle injuries.
Helps fight the winter blues
The ‘winter blues’ might sound like an old wives tale but some people do suffer from increased anxiety and depression during the winter months. An extreme form is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs) and it includes symptoms such as carbohydrate cravings, lethargy, sadness, excessive sleepiness and changes in circadian rhythms. While the exact cause is unknown, preliminary studies suggest that one possible cause of SAD is reduced levels of vitamin D during winter.
Exercising outdoors not only improves your vitamin D levels, it can also beat the blues by stimulating the release of endorphins. In an article by the New York Times, scientists confirmed ‘the runner’s high’, revealing that running elicits a flood of endorphins to the brain which is associated with improved mood.
Another study comparing people who walked indoors on a treadmill to those who walked outdoors found that the latter enjoyed the experience more. The outdoor group scored higher results on tests measuring vitality, enthusiasm and self-esteem and reported less stress, fatigue and tension after walking outside. Because they enjoyed it, they were also more likely to exercise for a longer period of time and were more likely to do it again in the future.
Winter workout tips
- Stretch and warm up – joints and muscles are generally tighter in winter so there is a higher chance of injury if you don’t warm up properly.
- Stay hydrated – when it’s cold we tend to drink less but it’s just as important to stay hydrated in winter as summer. Make sure you drink before, during and after your workout.
- If possible exercise in the most natural environment you can find. Rather than running along a busy road, opt for a bush walk or train in a park so that you can benefit from the fresh air.
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