Cold Weather Workouts: Myth vs. Fact

SSuchy Editor October 25, 2012
  • (Flickr, akunamatata) 

     

    Myth: I can’t exercise in the winter.

     

    Fact:  Okay, that’s pretty lame.  In fact, the chillier months are arguably the time when you most need a good boost of endorphins.  Calorie consumption tends to increase along with stress levels as cabin fever takes its toll.  Besides, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends 150 minutes of moderate-level activity every week, no matter if it’s January or April.  

     

    You should, however, follow some basic precautions for your outdoor workouts:

     

    1. Dress in layers: You may feel like you’re freezing when you start, but you’re likely to warm up pretty quickly and will want to shed layers.  Windbreakers are always a good idea when temperatures turn colder.
    2. Protect exposed skin: If it’s cold enough, you could be susceptible to wind burn or frostbite.  Make sure exposed areas of skin are covered either with clothing (hats, gloves, etc.) or Vaseline to protect from windburn and cold exposure.
    3. Don’t forget sunscreen: Just because you’re not in a bikini doesn’t mean the sun’s rays can’t find you.  In fact, if there is snow on the ground, it could reflect the sunlight enough to heighten your risk of sun damage to your skin.
    4. Stick to daylight hours: As the days get shorter, it becomes more difficult for you to be seen by drivers. 

     

    Myth: You burn more calories when you work out in cold weather.

     

    Fact: Yes and no. It depends on whether you are shivering. 

     

    Most of the claims that cold weather workouts burn more calories than those in warm weather stem from the idea that the body needs to work extra hard to keep warm while exercising in the cold.

     

    The body does work to maintain its core temperature.  When it overheats, the body will sweat to cool down; when it is cold, it will shiver to warm up.  Both of these actions require work, which means more calories burned. Shivering, believe it or not, actually burns a fair amount of calories, so it seems reasonable that working out in cold weather would burn all the calories you normally would, plus those lost through shivering. 

     

    Also, a study from the University of Utah found that your basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you naturally burn without expending any energy) does increase in colder temperatures, but only very slightly.  Researchers attribute this extremely small increase in calories burned from the extra work the body exerts to warm the cold air that you breathe and from rewarming skin that has been exposed to the cold.

     

    The problem is that your body is actually very good at warming itself. While your goal may be to burn extra calories, your body wants to be able to hum along as efficiently as it can.  So, you may burn a few extra calories as you shiver through your warm up, but as soon as the body reaches its normal core body temperature, you go back to burning the same number of calories as you would during a workout in the summer.   

     

    Myth: Cold weather workouts are, well, cold!

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    Fact: You may certainly start off cold, but as we’ve noted, the body is very good at warming itself up. As long as you dress properly and keep moving, you’ll find that cold weather workouts don’t feel much different from any other time of year.

     

    Myth: You are more susceptible to injuries.

     

    Fact:  This is actually true, but there are precautions you can take.

     

    1. Pay attention to the weather.  You don’t want to get caught in a snowstorm when you’re out running or skiing.
    2. Pay attention to the terrain: Black ice can be just as treacherous to runners and bikers as it is to drivers.
    3. Take time to warm up.  It will take your body a little longer than normal to warm up in the chilly weather.  Allow your muscles to warm up gradually with a few minutes of walking or slower activity before you start a more intense workout.  This will help you avoid pulled or torn muscles.
    4. Go inside and get warm as soon as you are done.  Lingering outside in the cold while wearing you sweaty workout clothes is not such a good idea.

     

    Sources:

     

    Brooks, Hannah, “Do you burn more calories in the cold”, Huffington Post (11/11). Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/16/calories-cold-weather_n_1096331.html

     

    Hadfield, Jenny, “Winter Running Tips”, Active.com (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.active.com/running/Articles/Winter-Running-Tips.htm

     

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2008), Physical Activity Guidelines for America. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html

     

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