Fall is well underway, and with it comes cooler temperatures, shorter days and even snow. For most of the United States, this spring and summer involved an incredibly different health and wellness routine. Gyms closed, indoor workouts required social distancing and masks, and outdoor activities reigned supreme. So what can we do to keep moving and stay well with the changing of the season? 

Beth Lewis, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Kinesiology whose research focuses on the behavioral aspects of physical activity, offers advice on how to keep moving, get outside in the cooler weather, and how to make the most of the space you have. 

Q: How important is it for us to keep active this winter? Can we “take the season off?

Prof. Lewis: It is never a good idea to take a season off because of the many physical and mental health benefits associated with exercise. However, it is a good idea to change your activity. It is normal to burn out on certain activities over time. Winter is a great time to change what you have been doing for exercise and recharge your motivation to move. Whether you decide to continue exercising outside (with layers and lights!) or move your workout routine inside to avoid low temperatures and icy conditions, consider mixing up your activities with the change of the season. 

Q: What are the benefits of indoor workouts versus outdoor workouts in the winter? 

Prof. Lewis: The main benefit of indoor workouts in the winter is safety. Once winter weather hits, meaning snow, ice and wind in Minnesota, it might be safer to stay indoors for your activity. Additionally, indoor workouts tend to lend themselves well to a variety of strength exercises, unlike traditional outdoor exercises, like running or biking. Remember, a simple air squat or push-up — whether it be pushing from the wall or floor — is considered strength training. The U.S. Department of Health recommends participating in strength training two times per week. However, this is rarely achieved by most Americans. That being said, outdoor workouts are still extremely beneficial, with the added bonus of fresh air and sunshine on nicer weather days. I would recommend checking the weather forecast for the week ahead to help you decide what kind of exercise, and on what days, makes sense with the weather conditions and your schedule. 

Q: If you’re committed to getting outside to workout, what are some activities that lend themselves to the winter season?

Prof. Lewis: The most important part of exercising outside is having the workout gear to brave the harsh elements. Think about stocking up on thick socks, double layering pants, full cover face masks, hats, and gloves for your outdoor activities. Another complication of outdoor workouts during the winter are the short daylight hours. It’s likely you’ll be working out in the dark. I recommend wearing something reflective, either on your workout clothes or added on top of your clothes. I personally like to use illuminating suspenders. You can wear them over any workout clothes and you do not have to worry about which of your jackets are reflective and which are not. Also, it’s equally important for you to be able to see if you’re moving outside in the dark! Being visually aware of potentially hazardous conditions, like ice, snow or frigid puddles, can make outdoor activity safer and more enjoyable. I recommend a headlamp or, better yet, a hat with a built in headlamp.

 If you’re geared up and committed, you can do almost any activity outside in the winter. However, there are some winter-specific things that are easier to do in cold weather conditions. For example, cross-country or downhill skiing, snowshoeing, winter hiking or walking, and ice skating. The equipment needed for these sports is made for the winter, so it will be easier to use and require less work to create safe conditions. 

Q: If it’s just too cold, what kind of activities can we do indoors and in small spaces that are effective?

Prof. Lewis: There are numerous workouts that can be done inside with no equipment. Try a tabata, which is doing 20 seconds of activity followed by 10 seconds of rest. For a 16 minute workout, select one exercise to do every four minutes. This could be air squats, burpees (going to the floor and back up again), push-ups, and plank holds.

There are also numerous online resources that can help guide your workouts including fitness experts and national programs. Additionally, if you have the funds, I recommend buying a few sets of dumbbells. Also, for about $40, you can purchase a pull-up bar that goes in a doorway and bands to help with assisted pull-ups. Remember your body weight can be the best form of resistance! 

Q: How will a regular workout routine help combat anxiety and depression during a season that is known for its own added stressors and downers? 

Prof. Lewis: Research shows that exercise can help prevent and treat anxiety and depression. In fact, some studies have found that when people engage in exercise at the recommended levels, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant medication for some people.

The problem is that it can be hard to find the motivation to exercise when anxiety and depression are high. One trick that I find helpful is to tell yourself you are only going to exercise for five minutes. Once you get going, you’ll probably find yourself exercising past your initial goal of only five minutes. Also, it’s important to remember that any amount of exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. If you’re just starting out, set realistic goals for yourself, move them up when you feel ready, and be flexible with yourself.   

Beth Lewis, Ph.D., is a professor and the director of the School of Kinesiology in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. Her research broadly focuses on examining the efficacy of behavioral interventions aimed at increasing physical activity among sedentary adults.

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