For a few months, the great outdoors was your gym, a range of sidewalks, trails, parks – maybe even waterways – providing an abundance of fun, creative opportunities to be active.
Now, as days grow shorter and temperatures drop, you may find your enthusiasm for outdoor exercise waning; in some places and for some individuals, al fresco workouts may not be safe, and your budget, schedule or health concerns may keep you from the gym. That’s no reason to hibernate, however. In fact, it’s vital for your physical and mental well-being to keep moving at this time of year.
“Consistent exercise during winter months is key to promoting and maintaining physical strength and stability that helps protect us against injuries from slack muscles,” writes Katherine Cullen, LMSW, NYC-based psychotherapist at Juniper Therapeutic Services and co-author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration. “Exercise during winter months also helps support healthy metabolism and blood sugar regulation as well as the healthy functioning of all of our organs.”
She cites cognitive and emotional benefits as well.
“We think more clearly when we’re regularly active,” she writes, recognizing the increased oxygen flow to our brains during exercise, as well as exercise’s ability to stimulate growth of new neurons in our brains.
In the winter months, though, we’re less likely to be physically active and more likely to feel blue, Cullen observes.
Exercise can prevent us from feeling down, she writes, adding that the “empowerment we feel from physical activity can also make us feel more motivated to leave our homes, make plans with friends, and engage in activities that help us lower stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.”
So how to get going?
Just start. Consider time, equipment, goals and fitness level when you go about choosing a workout, according to Melanie McNeal, PT, OCS, SCS, and manager of Orthopaedic & Sports Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine.
If you’re short on time: For those with limited time, McNeal notes that short interval workouts are most effective. “These provide high intensity training for short periods of time to get the heart rate up and burn the maximum calories in the shortest time possible,” she writes. “If you are inexperienced and not sure how to perform exercises correctly, a few sessions with a personal trainer might be advocated.”
If you’re trying to lose weight: If you want to lose weight, building muscle is vital, McNeal writes, noting that a pound of muscle at rest burns six calories an hour, versus a pound of fat, which only burns two calories an hour. So the more muscle you build, she explains, the more calories you burn when you’re sitting and working or relaxing.
If you’re trying to build muscle: “As we get older, the chances of osteopenia and osteoporosis are increased, especially in females,” McNeal writes. “Bones react to the stress put upon them so to keep them strong and decrease the risk for these diseases, a strengthening program is advocated. Even body weight exercises such as squats, push-ups and mountain climbers are effective at building muscle.”
Find good resources
If you’re going online: “When looking at workouts, find someone leading the workout that is reputable, one that you feel is describing how to perform the exercises in a way that you understand, one in which the exercises you perform are challenging but in no way painful,” McNeal writes, explaining that “bad” pain occurs when your body tells you something is wrong. Also, she notes, “if it doesn’t challenge you or is having you do exercises you aren’t comfortable doing, it’s not the workout for you.”
If you’re purchasing equipment: Simple, inexpensive gear including a dumbbell set, a mat, sliders, a Swiss ball and a jump rope all can be used to get a great workout, McNeal writes. She also notes that a recumbent bike or treadmill are nice for cardio if you have the space.
If you’re using what you have: When it comes to equipment, McNeal notes that a chair or stool can be used rather than investing in a step. Meanwhile, you can also transform everyday household activities into opportunities for exercise. Instead of bending at the waist, McNeal suggests squatting down and holding the squat while you’re dusting. Or, she writes: “Try cleaning while standing on one leg only. Make sure to balance on each leg as one tends to be better than the other and you can focus on improving each side. When you pick things off the floor, try doing it on one leg – such as when a golfer gets a ball out of the hole – he balances on one leg and bends at the waist. This is a single leg deadlift and will work hamstring strength as well as balance.”
Embrace the positives – and the possibilities
While running up and down your stairs or doing downward dog in your living room may not sound as fun as a sprint along a lake or outdoor practice in a park, exercising at home has its perks, and plenty of practitioners. “I think with the pandemic, many more people are exercising at home,” McNeal writes.
If you’re looking for an exercise buddy, realize that’s still an option. Cullen notes that you can tune into group classes, adding that you can reach out to a friend or family member and commit to working out at the same time over a video chat platform or over the phone.
You might discover, too, some enthusiastic participants in your own home. A benefit of at-home training if you have children, McNeal writes, is that they see you exercising and working hard, and they also want to participate.
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