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Is Exercising in Cold Weather a Better Workout?

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woman running outside in winter

When the temperatures dip below freezing and snow starts to fly, it can be hard to get motivated to go outdoors, let alone exercise. If you’re having a hard time mustering up the energy for a workout, you’re not alone – the average weight gain during winter is 5 to 10 pounds.

But don’t be so quick to snuggle up under a blanket this winter – experts say that there are many health benefits to an outdoor workout during the cold months. In addition to the typical health benefits of exercise, working out in the cold has some unique advantages when compared to warmer weather routines.

The Calorie-Burning Potential of Brown Fat

Research has confirmed that being outdoors in the cold can transform white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, white fat is the loose and “jiggly” fat that tends to settle in places like the belly, buttocks and thighs. It can also be very tough to get rid of. Brown fat, on the other hand, is much firmer than white fat. Babies are born with high amounts of brown fat because it helps keep them warm. But as we age, brown fat decreases, remaining in only small amount around the neck, shoulders and spine.

Brown fat is linked to improved blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, and is believed to lower the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Researchers also believe brown fat is an important factor in weight management.

Brown fat is activated when it is cold out – and when you exercise – to burn energy to keep you warm. One study also showed that people have more genetic markers for brown fat in the colder months, which suggests we could burn calories at a slightly higher rate in the winter. Spending time exercising in the cold can amplify this effect even more.

Other Benefits of a Cold-Weather Workout

  • Sunlight and vitamin D. Small doses of sun exposure will help your body produce vitamin D and can boost your mood, which is important during the winter months when days are shorter and you’re spending less time outdoors in general.
  • Immunity boost. A winter workout can give your immunity a boost and can help prevent infections such as the common cold and the flu.
  • Shivering. Your body’s natural response to cold can actually help you burn more calories – up to five times more, according to some studies.
  • Temperature regulation. Colder temperatures can improve your body’s ability to regulate its temperature. This can help you to exercise longer than you might be able to when it is hot and humid out – leading to more calories burned overall.

There are some safety and health considerations when working out in the cold. Make sure to dress in layers of weather-appropriate materials, use adequate sun protection, and wear proper footwear to avoid an icy spill. Also be aware of the risks of cold weather exercise if you have any conditions that could be exacerbated by the cold air, such as asthma.

Taking the Plunge: Cold Exposure Therapy

In addition to cold-weather exercise, many enthusiasts are touting the benefits of cold exposure therapy, the most popular of which is cold water therapy. Athletes have been practicing this for years by submerging themselves in ice baths after physically demanding exercise. The cold water has been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling and can sooth sore muscles.

Other benefits include improvements in mood, immune response and sleep quality. While many of these benefits have not been extensively studied and remain unproven, cold water therapy’s popularity suggests many people are finding success with the technique.

Experts say you should talk to your healthcare provider before attempting cold exposure therapy. The treatment comes with potential risks such as frostbite, hypothermia and heart-related problems, so you want to make sure you address any possible safety or health concerns before taking the icy plunge.

Related Links

At University Hospitals, our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other healthcare professionals ensure the very best sports medicine care for active people.

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