Readers of this newsletter know that I am dedicated to taking a daily walk for its countless health and brain benefits. Gyms and malls are great places to get your “steps in,” but I prefer to step outside even if the weather’s bad.

Still, low temperatures can discourage even the most avid exercisers among us. I have my limits when it comes to cold. But, barring frostbite, there’s no need to let your motivation dip with winter temperatures. In fact, the latest science shows exercising outdoors, even in cooler weather, provides health benefits that indoor exercise doesn’t. Read on for the story.

It’s true. Scientific evidence points to outdoor exercise taking off more pounds, boosting your mood in unique ways and providing other improvements to your overall health.

Three Proven Outdoor Exercise Benefits

  1. Burns more caloriesIt turns out that exercising regularly in cold temperatures burns more calories. A study found that exercising in cold temperatures can increase the production of brown fat, the fat that burns calories, by 45 percent and boost overall metabolism significantly.1This is good news for those who tend to pile on the pounds during the winter months due to lower activity levels and eating more comfort foods during holiday celebrations.
  2. Boosts MoodWe all know that exercise, in general, improves mood, but did you know that outdoor exercise helps your mood even more? Research shows outdoor exercise provides a mental health boost beyond that of indoor gyms. A 2010 study found moving outdoors reduces anger and depression and improves mood.2 Another study suggests that exposure to sunlight enhances vitamin D production, which may be partially responsible for this mood-enhancing effect.3
  3. Improves overall healthThe extra vitamin D you get from exercising outside also improves your overall health, from boosting immune function to strengthening your bones and improving your heart health. According to a study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, outdoor exercise may decrease the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by up to 27 percent over being sedentary.4 While researchers in this study did not directly compare outdoor exercise to indoor exercise, they concluded the heart health benefits are directly associated with higher levels of vitamin D from sun exposure. This is especially important during the winter months when we have reduced sun exposure and a decreased production of vitamin D.5 This is one reason why I take a daily vitamin D supplement and encourage others to do the same.

Now that you’ve seen the research, let’s get ready and motivated to head outside.

Three Winter Exercise Tips

  1. Be a weather watcherFirst, check the forecast before heading outside. Temperature, wind and moisture should all be taken into account. Pay close attention to the “wind chill” factor, and if it’s extreme consider modifying your exercise plan. According to the Mayo Clinic, if the temperature dips below zero F (minus 18 C) or the wind chill is extreme, consider choosing an indoor exercise until the frigid weather passes.6

    Frankly, zero is too cold for me. I salute the hardy souls who can take it. 32 degrees F is my discomfort threshold.

  2. Dress for cold weather successDressing too warmly for outdoor exercise is a common mistake. After scoping out the weather report, you may think, ‘Whoa, I need to bundle up!’ Well, yes and no. You see, with each step you take, you’re generating heat that will make you feel warmer. But when that sweat evaporates, it pulls the heat away from your body and you are left shivering.

    Ask any regular winter exerciser and they’ll tell you that layering is the answer to this dilemma. You can remove a layer when you heat up and then put it back on when you chill down. Experts suggest you start with a synthetic base layer (not cotton), which helps draw the sweat away from the body. Next, opt for a fleece or wool insulation layer. And, finally, top it off with a waterproof, breathable shell.

    Based on the weather and the intensity of your walk, you may want to experiment until you find the winning clothing combination for your taste. Also, don’t forget your head, hands, feet and ears, which are all vulnerable to frostbite.

  3. Drink up!We tend to associate hydration with warmer weather, but it’s just as important during cold weather. It can be tricky as you may be less likely to notice thirst in the winter. In fact, research shows that your thirst response may be blunted in cold weather.7 So, remember to drink up before and after outdoor winter exercise to prevent dehydration.

Still, at the end of day you may just hate exercising outside in frigid temperatures. Or you may have respiratory issues that are irritated by cold air. Neither one of these are excuses to skip exercising during winter months.

Grab a friend and get your steps in at the mall or an indoor track at a local school that’s available to the community. Or help the time fly by listening to an audio book while you stride on an indoor gym’s treadmill. And remember, warmer temperatures are just a few months away!

  3. Kerr, D.C. et al. (2015). Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women. Psychiatry Research, 227, 1, 46-51.