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Getting fit when it’s cold – the positives of winter exercise

Braving the cold winter temperatures for some outdoor exercise offers a number of benefits. [Adobestock photo]

During the frigid winter months, many people tend to abandon regular exercise, especially those whose workouts usually include walking, running or biking outside. But choosing to brave the weather rather than staying in and snuggling under a blanket offers important health benefits for almost everyone, according to advice from health experts at Harvard.   

In some ways, winter workouts can offer advantages you don’t get from exercising in the summer – for instance, cold weather may actually help to improve endurance. Studies also have shown that exercising in the cold can transform white fat, specifically belly and thigh fat, into calorie-burning brown fat.

In addition, outdoor winter workouts provide exposure to sunlight, which may ward off seasonal affective disorder [SAD], a type of depression that some people experience during the winter months. And sunlight is a critical source of vitamin D to help keep bones strong.

At a time of year when colds and flu are rampant, outdoor exercise also provides a boost to the immune system to keep those illnesses at bay. Along with a rush of fresh winter air, outdoor workouts provide the brain with a burst of the “feel-good” chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which help to ease stress and anxiety while increasing feelings of well-being.

While cold-weather exercise is safe for most people, those with certain conditions, such as asthma or heart problems, should check with their doctors to review any special precautions needed. Cold muscles are also at greater risks for strains and sprains, so warming up before an outdoor workout and stretching afterward are especially important. 

Rarely, exercising in cold weather can increase the risk of hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Seek emergency care immediately if hypothermia symptoms such as intense shivering, extreme fatigue, slurred speech or loss of coordination occur. Important safety precautions also include letting someone know when you’re heading out, and carrying a fully charged cell phone.

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