How to make this the winter you finally stay in shape
- It's easy to let your workout habits slide during the holidays and cold months, but taking one to three months off can cause you to lose almost all of your fitness gains.
- Experts have a number of recommended ways to stay motivated and in shape during winter months.
- Most importantly, pick something you like to do enough that you'll keep it up consistently.
It's one thing to go for a run outside or play in a pick-up soccer game on a warm summer day. But it's quite another to get outside in the winter, when the wind chill makes you gasp and it's dark long before you leave the office.
It's tempting to stop working out sometime in November as the holiday season sets in. Then before you know it, it's February, and no one wants to go outside after they've been cozy and lazy for the past few months. It's hard to motivate yourself to even walk to the gym by then.
The thing is, this lapse has a serious detrimental effect on fitness. Within one to three months, you can lose all the endurance or strength you spent the spring, summer, and early fall developing.
Whether you just want to stay in shape, or are thinking of picking up a new fitness habit for the New Year, know this: It's worth it. Exercise is the closest thing we have to a miracle drug - its wide-ranging benefits include heart health, lower cancer risk, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So here's how to make this the winter you stay fit.
First, pick what works for you
The best workout is the one you enjoy enough to keep doing consistently. Some people love running, others hate it. Some prefer weight lifting, soccer, or rock climbing. According to generally recommended guidelines, you should ideally do both aerobic activity and strength training, with a mix of vigorous and moderate exertion. But a number of fitness experts say the best path is to simply choose whatever activity you can realistically stick with.
Once you choose your workout, pick a goal. Maybe it's training for a marathon or triathlon, or learning to climb to a certain degree of difficulty. Setting goals and working to accomplish them sets you up for a life-long fitness habit, according to Dr. Steve Graef, a sports psychologist at Ohio State University.
"If people engage in these types of challenges, doing something they never thought was possible, [they] continue to do that, continue to have check ins over the course of a year, over the course of their life," said Graef. That's how you turn fitness into a lifestyle.
Hack your motivation
If working toward a goal isn't the right motivation for you, there are other things that help get you up and moving on those cold, dark mornings.
Arranging meetups with a friend helps ensure you won't skip your workout.
"I used to meet a buddy of mine at 4:30 [in the morning] in Central Park," Honerkamp said. You don't want to leave a friend waiting alone in the cold.
Getting competitive can help, too. According to a study of almost 800 people conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, competition is far more effective than social support or individual motivation at getting people to work out more. So when you set your goal, consider recruiting a friend and challenging each other to push harder.
REUTERS/David W Cerny
Embrace the cold
There's nothing wrong with working out indoors. But winter offers another opportunity for getting fit through the cold itself.
Focusing on diet and exercise alone may not be enough to achieve true fitness, according to a a theory investigated (and experienced) by journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney in his book "What Doesn't Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength."
This theory suggests that along with diet and exercise, our bodies might need some environmental stress - like exposure to cold and hot temperatures - to reach our full potential.
Carney embarked on a journey to see if "environmental conditioning" - guided by Wim Hof, a Dutchman who goes by the nickname "Iceman" - could help him unlock new levels of fitness.
On an individual level, he found that a regular routine of immersion in cold water and winter running (along with some breathing exercises) led to measurable physiological improvements, documented by a sports performance scientist. Some scientific studies indicate that cold exposure could play a role in weight loss and help counteract the effects of type 2 diabetes.
Push yourself - but go easy sometimes, too
Working out involves pushing yourself, but that doesn't mean everything has to be hard.
Little things can make it easier to get yourself out the door. If you're trying to work out in the morning, put your clothes and shoes out beforehand, and even sleep in your base layer if that'll help, Honerkamp said.
And if you feel like you aren't getting anywhere, it's okay to switch up your training plan. For a while, researchers thought some people were "nonresponders," meaning their bodies didn't respond to certain types of exercise. But a recent study found that while some people don't respond to some types of training, switching up their plan (from endurance training to high intensity training or vice-versa) helped them improve.
Finally, listen to your body to avoid injuries.
It can be easy to push yourself too hard and tear something when you're trying a new routine, Jason Barone, regional clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy, previously told Business Insider.
"It's good to push the body, but you need to listen to it as well," Barone said. "Be aware of warning signs ... don't push through pain, that might mean you need to take it easy."
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