The Unexpected Benefits of Winter Workouts

Exercising outdoors in the winter has benefits for your body and mind. Here’s how to make the most of your workouts.

Woman running outdoors, wearing a mask.

Sure, it’s cold outside, but that’s no excuse to avoid exercise. With COVID-19 still raging, many people are steering clear of indoor exercise spaces, where it’s hard to maintain social distancing, and taking their workout outdoors.

There are unexpected perks from braving the cold. “Exercising outdoors provides all of the physical benefits that we get from indoor exercise — cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and endurance — but we also get many other important benefits,” says Dr. Morgan Busko, attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital, who also participates in outdoor endurance activities like Ironman triathlons.

Just being in the sun increases your body’s creation of vitamin D, which protects you from a host of medical problems, says Dr. Busko, who is also an assistant professor of primary care sports at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. And exercising outdoors may provide a special psychological boost.

“There are studies that show that exercising in nature actually increases the levels of dopamine, serotonin, and natural endorphins that are released through the body,” says Dr. Busko. “If you do the same exact workout outdoors versus indoors, you’re getting a bigger dose of these neuromuscular transmitters that promote a happy mood.”

Outdoor exercise may also provide a better workout. “When you are outdoors, you don’t realize that you’re tackling hills or uneven trails, as opposed to being on a machine in the gym, where you may stay at the same resistance or level of intensity for the entire the workout,” says Dr. Busko.

You may even burn more calories. “The body has to expend more energy just to keep your body temperature neutral,” says Dr. Busko. And because you can change your route, outdoor exercise is apt to be less boring and thus less of a chore. “Outdoor workouts are more invigorating and stimulate us in ways that we don’t get when we’re in indoor gyms and exercise spaces.”

To make the most of outdoor workouts in the next few months, follow these steps:

Choose the Right Exercise

“Certain exercises may be more tolerable in the cold,” says Dr. Busko. To weather chilly temperatures, she recommends continuous activities like running or brisk walking more than those that intersperse activity with downtime, rest intervals, or long pauses.

“Light yoga may be hard to do in the cold because you may not be getting your body temperature up and your heart rate going as much,” says Dr. Busko. It might be a good time to take up a sport that’s new to you, such as snowshoeing, ice skating, or cross-country skiing. On the other hand, cycling when it’s very cold and windy can make for a miserable workout, she says.

Morgan Busko, MD

Dr. Morgan Busko

Dress the Part

Dress warmly — but not too warmly. You may have to experiment to see what keeps you warm but not overheated, says Dr. Busko. To stay warm and dry, she suggests wearing a base layer made of performance or technical fabric that wicks moisture away from the body so that you aren’t chilled by your own sweat.

“It’s more important to have hats, gloves, and warm socks on than it is to have too many layers on around the core of your body,” says Dr. Busko. “I usually recommend having fewer layers over the chest and the back and trying to bundle up your extremities.”

Warm Up

This is especially important in winter. “Before heading out for a workout in cold weather, I strongly recommend that most people participate in some sort of five-to-10-minute dynamic warmup indoors just to get the muscles and the cardiovascular system warmed up before hitting those cold temperatures,” says Dr. Busko. “Sweating a little bit means that the body has warmed up enough to get outdoors.”

She suggests doing a light, dynamic stretching routine (moving through the stretches rather than holding them), jumping jacks, or moving squats. Using a foam roller can also help to wake up and warm muscles.

Hydrate!

It is important to keep hydration in mind, particularly if you are going out for a longer workout, Dr. Busko says. “Follow the same principle that you follow for hot weather, which is that you really need to listen to the body cues,” she says. “Even if it is a cold day, and certainly if you’re working out longer than an hour, you want to have access to fluids during your workout.”

Wear Sunscreen

The sun emits harmful ultraviolet rays every season of the year. Plus, you can get significant exposure from sun reflecting off of snow.

“Even in the depth of the winter, we recommend putting sunscreen on every day, regardless of how much sun you expect to get,” says Dr. Busko. “You’re going to get the benefits of the vitamin D exposure even if you’re wearing sunscreen, but you’ll be protecting your skin from the harmful rays.”

Take Commonsense Precautions

Don’t exercise outdoors in extreme weather — severe precipitation, storms, or extremely cold temperatures. “There’s a time and place for indoor exercise,” says Dr. Busko. “We don’t want to put anyone at risk of getting too cold or hypothermia.”

In addition, “There are certain conditions that may predispose someone to not tolerating exercise in the cold weather as much as another person — for example, having a condition like Raynaud’s phenomenon, where the hands and the feet get triggered into a vasospasm when exposed to cold,” says Dr. Busko. “That allows them to become very cold very quickly, and it’s hard to get warm again. That can be a difficult condition for outdoor exercise.”

People who have been inactive should be particularly careful before starting an outdoor workout. “We can see serious health conditions like heart attacks in inactive individuals who push themselves too much from the start, even just from a strenuous activity like shoveling snow,” Dr. Busko says. “You really want to listen to your body and build up gradually, not only to prevent injuries and adverse cardiovascular effects, but also so that you really enjoy it.” That way, you’ll keep doing it, she says.

Fortunately, most people transition to outdoor workouts with relative ease, Dr. Busko says. “They will probably quickly find that it’s more enjoyable than they may have expected,” she says. “Sometimes it can be intimidating to get out there, but truly, even on the coldest days in New York City, once I hit Central Park, it’s a wonderful feeling to be out in those temperatures knowing that you can push yourself and move your body despite the outdoor conditions. Getting out the door is the hardest part.”

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