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Exercise Outside This Winter for Greater Weight Loss

Winter exercise and weight loss

When the weather turns cold, you are probably more likely to hit the treadmill at the gym versus heading outside in freezing temps for a run. You may want to rethink that decision if your goal is weight loss. A new study suggests that regular exposure to cold weather may be a healthy and sustainable way to help lose weight.

First author Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands and a team of researchers started studying effects of mildly cold weather about 10 years ago. The first such research took place to better understand the effects on people who are regularly outdoors, such as military personnel and firefighters.

The team hypothesized that the thermal environment affected health, most specifically the way our bodies burned fat for energy.

After studying people spending six hours a day in the cold for a period of 10 days, the team found that people can actually increase their levels of “brown fat” – a type of tissue that actually can promote increased calorie burn.

Brown fat is abundant in infants, but we lose it as we grow older. This type of fat burns energy to keep us warm. Training the body to create more of this type of fat (by spending time in colder temperatures) can help us burn more calories and maintain a healthy weight over the long-haul.

"Most of us are exposed to indoor conditions 90 percent of the time," said Marken Lichtenbelt. “By lack of exposure to a varied ambient temperature, whole populations may be prone to develop diseases like obesity.”

Outdoor exercise can not only crank up your energy expenditure. It also has the benefit of decreasing tension, frustration, and depression, according to recent research published in Environmental Science & Technology. Those effects may well be intensified in the winter, says adventure-fitness consultant Sean Burch, who set a world record running a marathon at the North Pole. "The heat and humidity in the summer can drag you down and tire you faster, but cold weather is invigorating," he says. "It stimulates your senses, tunes you in to your surroundings—it makes you feel alive."

Here are some tips for exercising safely in colder weather:

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Map Your Route
Stable, safe footing should be your priority when planning a winter route, says Andrew Kastor, a running coach in California. For early-morning or evening workouts, scout out plowed streets and sidewalks that are well lit, to help you spot black ice. Look for a loop in your neighborhood that you can repeat as many times as you want, recommends Tracey Martinson of Running Club North in Fairbanks, Alaska. That way, if you become tired, slip on ice, or get wet, you will still be close to home and can quickly escape the elements.

You will also want to avoid open roads and paths near water: Tree-lined trails and city blocks with tall buildings can help protect you from biting winds and snow flurries, says Olympian Lindsey Anderson, assistant track and cross-country coach at Weber State University in Utah.

Warm Up Wisely
Before any workout, walk around or jog in place indoors for five minutes, recommends Olympian Jeff Galloway, coauthor of A Woman's Guide to Running. When you head out, give your body time to adjust to the conditions by taking 30-second breaks every few minutes for the first 10 minutes.

Start Small
If you normally do four miles in the summer, start with two. "It's better to underestimate your ability in the cold," says Martinson. If you have to stop, your body temp will drop rapidly, increasing your risk for hypothermia. Easing into it can also help your airways acclimate, says Burch. In subfreezing weather, it's helpful to wrap a scarf or neck gaiter around your nose and mouth to warm the air before you breathe it in, says Martinson.

Be Flexible
You may be an a.m. exerciser, but on extremely cold days, your best (and safest) bet is holding off until midafternoon, if possible, when temps are at their highest and paths are more likely to be plowed. And yes, there is such a thing as too-lousy weather. "Stay in if you have to battle wind, snow, ice, and darkness, because there are just too many challenges stacked up against you," says Kastor.

Drink Up
You don't see your sweat losses in the winter like you do in the summer, so most people give little thought to staying hydrated, says Burch. But you can still sweat just as much (especially if you're bundled up). Try putting your bottle under your layers to help keep it from freezing

Cool Down Safely
To avoid getting too chilled during your cooldown, keep it brief: Slow your pace for three to four minutes, then go inside to stretch. Take off extra layers and keep moving for another five to 10 minutes before showering.

Journal Reference:
van Marken Lichtenbelt et al. Cold exposure -- an approach to increasing energy expenditure in humans.Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, January 2014

Additional Resources:
NY Times: Brown Fat Burns Ordinary Fat, Study Finds (January 2012)
Women’s Health Magazine: How to Exercise in Cold Weather