Winter training: why you should exercise in the cold

Does winter time mean snow angels and festive food or depression and winter weight gain?

Unfortunately, for many of us, when the weather gets colder and the nights get longer, our mood goes down and our weight goes up. Here’s the motivation you need to kick off your winter training set a seasonal best.

WHAT’S CAUSING YOUR WINTER WEIGHT GAIN

Winter weight gain is a thing, but don’t worry – it’s not the 2kg pile on that we read about in magazines. Actually, the average weight gain over the winter season is a mere 0.48kg. (1) The problem is, these extra pounds stick around. They don’t disappear during the summer months and, over time, can lead to obesity.(1, 2)

The cause of winter weight gain is debated, but the evidence points at two key factors; lifestyle and biology. It’s no surprise that in the winter months we prefer to cuddle up inside and put away our running shoes. Add to that the roast meat, chocolate and alcohol we consume during the holidays, and you have a recipe for, well… a muffin top.

BIOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF WINTER WEIGHT GAIN

The biological origins of our cold season kilos are much deeper: We humans possess an innate drive to gain weight as a way of surviving food scarcity. (3) Historically this was worst in the winter months. The risk of overeating wasn’t a concern back then. Now we have to choose between triple chocolate cheesecake and profiteroles. Scientists at the University of Exeter suggest that New Year’s Day may be the worst day to start a new diet. (4) So, until our biology evolves, we need a solution. Cold weather workouts are the perfect antidote.

COLD WEATHER MAXIMIZES YOUR CALORIE BURN 

Exercise is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to prevent unwanted weight gain. However, for significant weight loss current recommendations for physical activity are in excess of four hours per week! (5) Exercising in winter is the secret to maximizing calorie burn in the colder months. Here’s why: 

ACTIVATE YOUR BROWN ADIPOSE TISSUE 

Most of our body fat is stored as inactive White Adipose Tissue (WAT), which offers insulation but cannot generate heat. In severe cold, the shivering response can increase our energy expenditure (i.e. calories burnt) five times above the resting level. (6) However, shivering is highly uncomfortable and is not recommended as a strategy to increase calorie burn.

Definition “Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT)”:

Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) is a metabolically active fatty tissue involved in producing and distributing heat throughout the body. BAT helps hibernating mammals stay warm in winter and was recently discovered in humans!

Brown Adipose Tissue, on the other hand, has a special property. This vital tissue is activated in cold temperatures generating the heat we need to function normally. Heat generation in cold temperatures, aside from shivering, can account for 11.8% of resting energy expenditure. (7) A recent study in Frontiers in Physiology showed that BAT adapts to outdoor temperatures, generating more heat and burning more calories, as the weather gets colder. (8)

We now spend 90% of our time indoors, where ambient temperature is often controlled. The rise of obesity is thought to be related to our constant warm surroundings. (9)

Exercise in the cold will activate your brown adipose tissue (BAT) and improve your body’s ability to thermoregulate while burning extra calories.

BAT activation through cold exposure also increases insulin sensitivity, regulating blood sugar and lowering the risk of weight gain. (10, 11, 12) Bonus!

THE BEST WAY TO FIGHT THE WINTER BLUES

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can affect anyone and occurs in 6-14% of the population depending on where you live. (13) Besides making you feel terrible, SAD can contribute to weight gain through increased comfort eating and time alone. (14)

Definition “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)”:

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter. Symptoms include depression, fatigue, hopelessness and withdrawal. A lesser form of seasonal mood change is known as the winter blues.

Once again, outdoor exercise may be the best solution to this serious problem. Light therapy is a traditional treatment for SAD. This involves exposure to a lamp designed to mimic natural sunlight.

Scientific evidence suggests that exercising outside can also alleviate the symptoms of SAD by the chemical release of serotonin (one of the happy hormones) (15), and through natural exposure to sunlight! (16, 17)

Interestingly, Japanese and Icelandic populations have a surprisingly low rate of SAD despite their northern location and short winter days. (18, 19) It is thought that the fish-rich diet of both countries (60 and 90kg per year compared to 24kg in Canada), boosts essential vitamin D stores and combats the symptoms of SAD.

So there you have it. Exercise in the cold burns more calories and improves your mood. Now you have the cold, hard facts, it’s time to get outside this winter. Beat SAD and lose FAT with these tips for your winter workout!

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Abe Ankers Abe’s background in sports science and exercise physiology comes in handy when he’s running and cycling. He likes to share his insights with others. View all posts by Abe Ankers »