Cold Weather / Winter Health Tips

by Charles Platkin, PhD
It’s cold almost everywhere in the country. It’s hard enough to exercise and eat right even in the best of circumstances, and the cold just adds an extra layer of difficulty.

The truth is that exercising in the cold can burn a few more calories because your body needs to use more energy to stay warm; however, that’s not enough to combat additional eating while also doing less exercise because it’s so cold. Add the issue of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) along with the shorter days and longer nights and it really becomes harder to stay healthy. Here are a few tips and ideas to keep you healthier during this very cold  

1.    You’re Sick

If you’re a bit under the weather and feel that you’re “coming down with something,” you should know that research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who are physically fit and active have fewer and milder colds. The researchers tracked 1,000 adults during the fall and winter and found that cold “symptoms fell by 41 percent among those who felt the fittest and by 31 percent among those who were the most active.” The researchers theorized that working out increases the circulation of immune system cells and helps to fend off viruses and bacteria. 

What about once you already have a cold? Experts from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend caution for people who are considering an intense workout while they’re sick. “Prolonged, intense exercise … can weaken the immune system and allow viruses to gain a foothold and spread. People who are already sick should approach exercise cautiously during their illness.”  ACSM experts offer the following recommendations: 

•          Do exercise moderately if your cold symptoms are confined to your head. If you’re dealing with a runny nose or sore throat, moderate exercise is permissible. 

•          Don’t “sweat out” your illness. 

•          Do stay in bed if your illness has spread beyond your head. Respiratory infections, fever, swollen glands and extreme aches and pains all indicate that you should rest up, not work out. 

•          If you’re recovering from a more serious bout of cold or flu, gradually ease back into exercise after at least two weeks of rest.

•          In general, if your symptoms are from the neck up, go ahead and take a walk, but if you have a fever or general aches and pains, rest up.

2.    Does Cold Burn Calories? 

You actually do burn more calories when you are outside in the cold weather. According to Andrew J. Young, Ph.D., of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass., “There are two factors that could cause energy expenditure to increase with falling outdoor temperatures. First, if shivering is elicited by cold, then energy expenditure increases. However, different people have differing shivering-response sensitivity, and intensity of shivering will be influenced by magnitude of decrease in body (deep core and skin) temperature, which in turn is influenced by body size and fat content, which vary widely among people, as well as clothing worn. So some folks don’t shiver at all (well-dressed, lots of body fat), and a man in the cold is not always a cold man. The other reason energy expenditure might increase in cold weather is if you perform heavy physical labor (walk in deep snow, carry or wear heavy clothing).” Additionally, there is a likelihood that you could have a slight increase in calorie burn (about 3 to 7 percent) from your body re-warming itself from cold air touching your skin as well as warming the cold air that goes into your lungs, adds Wayne Askew, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Utah.

3.    Winter Activities Burn Calories 
According to a review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public , adults are more physically active during leisure time in the summer than in the winter. People walk two to three times more for pleasure in spring-summer-fall seasons compared with winter. In addition, outdoor activities such as gardening and lawn-mowing tend to replace indoor pastimes such as home exercise and bowling. 

However, there are plenty of calorie-burning activities you can do outside in the winter: skating, sledding, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, hiking and snowshoeing. Check,,,, for interesting outdoor ideas, and see the calorie burn (based on published Metabolic Equivalent tables) from the activities below. 

–      Ice Skating, 8.2 calories per minute
–      Ice Skating, Fast, 10.5 calories per minute
–      Ice Skating, Speed, Competitive, 17.6 calories per minute
–      Skiing, General, 8.2 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Downhill, Light Effort, 5.9 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Downhill, Moderate Effort, General, 7.0 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Downhill, Vigorous Effort, Racing, 9.4 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Cross Country, 2.5 Mph, Slow or Light Effort, Ski Walking, 8.2 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Cross Country, 4.0-4.9 Mph, Moderate Speed and Effort, General, 9.4 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Cross Country, 5.0-7.9 Mph, Brisk Speed, Vigorous Effort, 10.5 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Cross Country, >8.0 Mph, Racing, 16.4 calories per minute
–      Skiing, Cross Country, Hard Snow, Uphill, Maximum, Snow Mountaineering,     19.3 calories per minute
–      Sledding, Tobogganing, Bobsledding, Luge, 8.2 calories per minute
–      Snowshoeing, 9.4 calories per minute
–      Snowmobiling, 4.1 calories per minute

4.    Safety First 
Dr. Alexis Chiang Colvin, an associate professor of sports medicine in the department of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has a few tips for a healthy skiing, snowboarding or ice skating experience: 

–      Take a lesson. For beginners, it is important to learn how to stop safely; for the advanced, a lesson by a professional can help correct bad or unsafe habits.
–      Wear a helmet and other protective gear such as wrist guards if skiing or snowboarding. Even if you are going on the bunny slopes, you are still at risk for a head injury if you fall.
–      Wear warm clothing with multiple layers that can be shed if you get wet or too hot. Fabrics other than cotton, such as wool or fleece, provide better insulation when they get wet.
–      Wear appropriately sized gear that has been maintained and checked by a professional.
–      Go with a friend. No matter the activity, there is safety in numbers. 
–      Get in shape before you ski or snowboard — don’t use skiing or snowboarding as a means to get into shape.
–      Know when to call it a day. Many skiing and snowboarding injuries occur on the last run of the day, so realize when you have had enough and get back to the lodge. 
–      Use designated areas only. Ski, snowboard or skate in areas that have been specifically designated for those activities. 

5.    Avoid Losing Too Much Body Heat
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), one of the biggest concerns when exercising in the cold is hypothermia (too much heat loss). ACE experts explain that heat loss is controlled in two ways: Insulation, consisting of body fat plus clothing, and environmental factors, including temperature and wind. Each of these factors plays a role in the body’s ability to maintain a comfortable temperature during exercise. Here are a few tips from ACE and a few other sources:

–       Wear a Hat: “Generally, heat loss from the head alone is about 50 percent at the freezing mark, and by simply wearing a helmet or hat, a person can stay outside indefinitely.”
–       Dress in Layers: “By wearing clothing in layers, you have the ability to change the amount of insulation that is needed. While many new products can provide such a layered barrier, it is important to avoid heavy cotton sweats or tightly woven material that will absorb and retain water. Because these materials cannot provide a layer of dry air near the skin, they can increase the amount of heat your body loses as you exercise.” It’s the same concept that’s behind storm windows. If you can trap a layer of air between you and the elements, you’ll be a lot more comfortable. 

There are three main layers:
Inner layer: This layer is right next to your skin and should be made of fabric that will draw moisture away from your body. This will keep you dry and comfortable. 
Middle layer: This is an insulating layer.   
Outer layer: This layer should be at least water-resistant if not waterproof, and should keep the wind out.

–       Ventilate: Allow for adequate ventilation of sweat as wet clothing will continue to drain the body of heat.

–       Keep your hands and feet warm: Lower temperatures cause blood to be shunted away from the hands and feet to the center of the body to keep the internal organs warm and protected. 

–       Wind: If there is any significant wind, it is better to begin your session going into the wind and to finish with the wind at your back.

–       Hydration: Make sure to hydrate correctly. 

6.    Check the Weather 
According to ACE, “Aways check the air temperature and wind chill factor before exercising in the cold.” There is probably little danger if you are properly clothed e at 20° F, even with a 30 mph wind. A danger does exist for individuals with exposed skin when the wind-chill factor (a combined effect of temperature and wind) falls below –20° F. If you are exercising near the danger zone for skin exposure, “it also is advisable to warm the air being inhaled by wearing a scarf or mask over your nose and mouth.”

7.    Eat Hot Soup
Healthy soup is a great way to stay warm, maintain nutrients and fill up without too many calories. Here is a link to healthy winter soup recipes from a few top chefs: 

8.    Don’t Get SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD or the winter blues, impacts many people. Making sure to get out for at least a few minutes, even if you only take a walk around the block (in the morning for best light) will increase your level of serotonin, a potent brain chemical that controls mood, sleep and appetite, and, when elevated, helps you to feel more relaxed and calm.You can also boost serotonin levels with healthy carbs (e.g. 100 percent whole grains, fruit and vegetables). 

9.    Fight Colds and Flu with Food
Food can boost your immunity. The antioxidants in vitamin C and beta-carotene, found in foods such as citrus fruit, broccoli and spinach, can help. Here are a few flu-fighting foods from , and another 6 from Epicurious: . Finally here are some immunity-boosting recipes from 

10. Video Games
The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport reports that the average heart rate during a video game session is similar to the heart rate during strength training.  But keep in mind that if you want to get the most calorie burn for your buck you need to make sure the game involves the entire body. Researchers reporting in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that calorie burning was significantly lower for games played primarily through upper body movements than it was for those that engaged the lower body as well. 

11. Workout at Home
Sometimes when it’s really cold you just don’t feel like going to the gym. Try these home exercises. See:   Or, do the 7 minute workout at 

12. Rent or Buy Exercise Videos
You can get great exercise videos on Netflix or to watch on your computer or stream right to your TV using Roku or some other device.

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