5 Tips for an Active Winter

by Sam Kramer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSGB, CISSN

The winter brings warm, nostalgic feelings with its hot cocoa, crackling fires and holiday cheer. But the frigid temperatures and early darkness can decrease the motivation to exercise and make cozying up on the couch even more enticing than usual. We all know that exercise should be a year-round engagement, so how do we stay motivated? Here are 5 tips to help you keep moving until spring.

Exercise outside

While this idea may seem counterintuitive, exercising in the cold can have some benefits to the body. Have you ever wondered how hibernating bears survive without eating during the winter? Well, it’s due to a phenomenon known as Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT). Without getting too technical, there are two types of fat in the body, White Adipose Tissue (WAT) and BAT. WAT is the fat tissue that sits on your body, and excess is an indicator of poor health. BAT, on the other hand, is very metabolically active, facilitating heat generation at the cellular level to increase energy (calorie) expenditure. Bears are packed full of BAT. They consume massive quantities of food throughout the warmer months and then burn all those calories while they hibernate in the winter. Humans, on the other hand, are born with just a little BAT (about 5% of body weight) in order to protect against hypothermia. Human babies tend to lose it within the first few months of life. Recently, promising research has demonstrated that WAT can convert to BAT through the act of shivering. It is thought that exercising in colder environments may be a beneficial way to activate BAT. While it may not be the most fun to exercise in the cold, it can slightly boost your energy expenditure and may be worth the trade-off. As a large caveat, this research is still in its infancy and primarily performed in mice and rats. There is still much to be discovered and understood, but it is certainly interesting as a potential tool in the toolbox to stave off WAT fat tissue accumulation. No matter what you do, be sure to always exercise caution when being active outdoors – especially in cold weather!


Even though it’s not hot outside, hydration is still important, especially during exercise. There is the classic 8 x 8 rule, which states that you should have 8 cups of 8 fluid ounces of water per day. This guideline is very generalized and does not account for variables that can impact hydration (i.e. salty foods, sweat rate, body composition, etc.) Another quick way to calculate how much fluid you should consume is to have 1 milliliter per calorie consumed. For example, if you eat 2000 calories per day, you would consume 2000 milliliters – or 2 liters – per day. About 2 hours before exercising, try to consume 2-3 cups of water. During a workout lasting 60-90 minutes, about 0.5 to 1 cup every 15-30 minutes is recommended. After a strenuous workout, you should replace every pound lost on the scale with 16 ounces of fluid. Of course, the most practical way to ensure you are hydrated is to never be thirsty! Your thirst sensation mechanism is a delayed physiological response. Thus, once you perceive thirst, it is already too late, and dehydration is present. This phenomenon is particularly important for older people who may not drink enough or perceive or recognize thirst as easily. If you need another motivator to make sure you stay hydrated, you should know that it doesn’t take much dehydration to experience uncomfortable side effects. Research shows as little as 2% loss in body weight can result in dehydration symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, headache and dry skin. You can also look at the color of your urine in order to gauge your hydration status. Except for your first trip the bathroom when you wake up, your urine should be generally off-white. The darker the color, generally the more dehydrated you are.

Dress appropriately

While this may seem like a no-brainer, wearing layers of warm clothes can help to keep body heat insulated. As you exercise, your internal body temperature rises and heat begins to dissipate. This may provide a sensation of being hot, but the reality is that you are losing heat. You lose the largest amount of heat from your head and your extremities (i.e. fingers and toes). Wearing gloves can help keep blood circulation flowing and prevent skin from being cracked and dry. A lesser-known clothing recommendation is to wear “dry” clothing. This type of material typically wicks away moisture and prevents sweat from sticking to your body. Water is a conductor of heat and moves away from your body, so becoming wet can make you feel freezing and miserable. How do you know if it’s “dry” material? Ditch the cotton which holds in moisture. Opt for material such as polyester or nylon.

Warm up

Think of your muscles as a rubber band – elastic and stretchy. When you first pull on that rubber band, it is very tight and takes more force to pull it apart. And if you pull it too hard, it can snap. That is exactly what can happen to your muscles if you don’t warm up properly. Exercising without a proper warm-up has been shown to increase risk for injuries. In the cold weather, your muscles don’t become “warm” simply by being outside, so take a few extra minutes to lightly walk/jog before beginning an exercise regimen. It is also important to wait to stretch until after your workout. Using our rubber band example, you want to elongate the muscle fibers when they are warm. If you stretch prior to working out, research has shown it is not preventative in terms of injury and can even increase risk for muscle tearing. It is also important to include dynamic stretching that involves movement, such as lunges. Steer clear of passive stretching, such as touching your toes, which doesn’t decrease soreness and can actually increase risk for injury by extending the range of motion excessively.

Set alarms & be accountable

The most challenging part of exercising in the winter is finding the motivation to do the exercise. The cold temperatures and early darkness all act against you! Know that showing up is half the battle. Set alarms and reminders to build habit and routine. The only person you are accountable for is yourself! Completing exercise when everyone else chooses not to can be immensely gratifying, self-fulfilling, and an excellent benefit for your physical and mental health. Set an intentional goal, and with internal motivation and repetition it’s more likely to become a permanent and automatic behavior. Also, find activities that you enjoy by yourself; doing this can ensure you are more likely to continue to strive for and enjoy your goals, no matter what the season!

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