Wintertime Fitness

Debra Fulghum Bruce

Winter is coming, and we are packing on the pounds. But surely our bodies are physiologically preprogrammed to pad on added insulation in the winter, right? Sorry, but no… not unless you are a hibernating bear.

While cold winter weather does produce a slowing of our body’s metabolism to compensate for the dramatic shift in temperatures, it is not nearly as profound as in other mammals, such as woodchucks or bears. Interestingly, recent clinical studies do suggest that we have “circannual cycles,” meaning cyclical changes in blood chemistry, hormone secretion, brain activity, and appetite. These circannual rhythms appear to relate to changes in the length of daylight and darkness, causing seasonal deviations.

“Ah! Then there is a scientific reason I gain 10 pounds each winter,” you say with relief. Sorry again. While the shorter days signal a time of shutting down or hibernation to the plant and animal world, less daylight only gives humans an easy excuse to stop that early morning jog or tennis game after work.

Balance Your (Caloric) Checkbook

There’s usually one reason for weight gain during winters months, according to health expert and nutritionist Lori Steinmeyer: we eat more and move around less.

“Because there are more daylight hours during the summer, you have greater opportunity to be active outside,” Steinmeyer says. “The bright sunny days lure us to be jogging with friends, swimming, water skiing, or going on long hikes. Interestingly, in nature, mating seasons are geared toward the spring and summer months of the year, and animals tend to migrate to warmer climates during the late fall and winter months.”

Steinmeyer contends that while the shorter daylight hours definitely have an impact on our activity level, we are still in control. “It’s a matter of balancing your caloric checkbook, meaning you have to calculate how many calories you take in each day and how many you spend through exercise and activity. In the winter months most of us simply use fewer calories because we are less active. This is one important reason people in the North tend to weigh more. The icy temperatures along with the increased nighttime hours add up to inactivity and result in weight gain.”

Don’t Blame the Holidays

Even though most of us tend to eat more around the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, this is not a valid reason for gaining weight. Think about it: there are plenty of warm-weather holidays—Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, to name a few—that could easily pack on pounds. Yet during these warm-weather outings, eating more is often balanced with increased exercise and activity.

Obviously, the really big issue for most of us is that the automobile gets more use (or exercise) than we do. Studies show that it is not unusual for Americans (adults and children) to watch three to five hours of television per day instead of engaging in exercise or physical activity. This “cocooning” time generally increases as the temperatures decrease.

If the Shoe Fits, Wear It . . . to Walk

Especially for those who are prone to feelings of lethargy during the cold winter months, exercise is the key to releasing those “feel good” endorphins—the “happy” hormones in the body. Not only does physical activity increase alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation and meditation, but exercise acts as a displacement defense mechanism for those who are literally “stressed out.”

If you are worried you will have to run miles to get these benefits, no need to fear. According to experts from the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “no pain, no gain” theory is out. According to these experts, we should strive to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every day of the week or enough to burn about 200 calories (equal to a brisk two-mile walk). Not only will this exercise burn fat, it will also lower your cholesterol level, build muscle and bone, and improve your mental health. Interestingly, if you didn’t change what you ate, yet burned an additional 200 calories a day, you would lose about 20 pounds in one year. Let’s see . . . that means you could lose five pounds this winter instead of gaining weight. Now, that’s good news!

Time to Chill

Choose activities that are pleasurable and that you will stick with. Keeping in mind your personal fitness level, vary the exercises to keep from getting bored. Doing the same exercise repeatedly is like having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch—it just gets old. If you enjoyed walking outside during the summer, consider joining an indoor aerobics class this winter. If you were passionate about beach volleyball, check out your local Y for the indoor volleyball schedule. Likewise, if you thrive on swimming at the lake, continue this water sport in an indoor pool.

Consider building your own indoor gym. Check the classified advertisements for used exercise equipment such as electronic treadmills or stationary bicycles. Or check out popular exercise videos. There are instructional videos for all levels of fitness. You must get up 10 minutes earlier, pop in the tape, and get moving—no matter how much snow is on the ground. Yes, there are no excuses!

While 30 consecutive minutes of moderate-intensity exercise is optimal, newer studies report that you can get the same benefit from 10-minute segments of exercise three to four times a day. You could do 10 minutes of aerobic exercise with your video before work, walk the stairs for 10 minutes during your break, take a jog around the block with your dog after work, then end your day with a 10-minute ride on your stationary bike while watching the news.

In short, don’t blame Old Man Winter for your expanding love handles. You know that the ball is in your court, so start swinging!

Winter Alternatives to Summertime Activities

If you’re looking for an alternative to your summer activities, try these cold-weather equivalents as calorie-burners.

Summer Activity                  Winter Alternative              Calories Burned/Hour*
Aerobics (low-impact)                 Snow shoveling (light)               400
Channel surfing (remote control)     Reading a favorite novel        100
Cycling (10 mph)                        Stationary bike (10 mph)            300
Gardening                                  Window cleaning                        280
Golf (walking)                             Splitting logs                             300
Hiking on steep hills                    Indoor rappelling                       400
Jogging (6 mph)                          Jumping rope                             450
Mowing lawn                               Mopping floors                           275
Rowing                                       Rowing machine                         400
In-line skating                             Step aerobics                             450
Swimming                                   Skiing (cross-country)                 400
Tennis (doubles)                         Indoor basketball                        235
Tennis (singles)                           Racquetball                               390
Badminton                                 Indoor volleyball                         250
Walking (3 mph)                         Mall walking                               250
*Numbers are approximate and vary according to weight.

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