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6 Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in the Winter

woman running in the snow
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Ahhh, winter: darker skies, lower temperatures and a heapin’ helpin’ of snow, freezing rain or frigid wind. Who’s up for a 5-mile run?

Sure, it can be tough to get out of bed and tougher still to get out the door. But there are good reasons to keep up with your usual outdoor exercise routines, or even to create new ones.

While you can get a fine workout indoors at a gym, running track or yoga studio, outdoor winter exercise has advantages that can outweigh the inconvenience and that initial chill.

In most places, winter workouts require different clothing and possibly reflective or lighted gear for safety reasons. Those with asthma or other breathing issues should keep in mind that cold, dry winter air can be tough on the airway. (According to the American Lung Association, wearing a protective scarf or some other layer over the mouth and nose will warm and humidify the air you breathe, helping to prevent airway irritation.)

Generally speaking, though, outdoor exercise in the winter months can provide some surprising benefits.

1. Sunlight is important for bone health

Active senior exercising outdoors
Halfpoint / Shutterstock.com

Some winters seem nothing but dark. But unless you live above the Arctic Circle, you’ll get some daylight so take advantage of what you can find.

The Arthritis Foundation suggests that you skip the treadmill and walk outdoors whenever possible. We need sunshine to stimulate vitamin D production in our skin, which is essential for absorbing calcium.

“Not getting outside during winter months slows down production and decreases the body’s store of vitamin D,” the nonprofit reports. This is particularly important for those who take corticosteroids since this medication can cause brittle bones.

Even just 15 minutes of sun on your face and hands a few times a week will give you enough light to produce the “sunshine vitamin.”

2. Exercise can help with seasonal depression

woman running in winter
EHStockphoto / Shutterstock.com

Seasonal affective disorder is no joke. Low winter light levels affect serotonin levels in the brain and leave people depressed, lethargic and sometimes unable to function. According to Dr. Morgan Busko of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, outdoor exercise increases our levels of serotonin, dopamine and natural endorphins.

“If you do the same exact workout outdoors versus indoors, you’re getting a bigger dose of those neuromuscular transmitters that promote a happy mood,” says Busko in an article published on the hospital’s website.

3. It helps build endurance

Woman walking in the snow with snow shoes and hiking poles
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According to Harvard Medical School, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard during colder workouts. That means you sweat less and expend less energy, which in turn means more efficient workouts.

Since you’re using less energy, you might turn that brisk one-mile walk into a mile and a half. Doing so lets you build endurance and burn calories while getting a little fresh air.

Bonus: Harvard Medical School also points out that cold weather workouts can transform “white fat” in your belly and thighs into calorie-burning “brown fat.” Who knew?

4. It helps prevent colds and flu

Women working out in winter
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It’s tempting to stay in bed on a gray winter day. But according to the National Library of Medicine, a little exercise could be just what we need to stave off the sniffles. That could be as simple as a daily walk or, weather permitting, a bike ride with your kids.

It’s not clear why moderate exercise helps, but the NLM reports several theories:

  • Exercise might help clear the lungs and airway of bacteria and viruses.
  • Physical activity causes white blood cell and antibodies to circulate more rapidly, possibly helping them detect potential illness faster.
  • The fact that exercise literally warms us up may help reduce bacterial growth, just as a fever helps us fight infection.
  • Stress can increase the possibility of sickness. Physical activity helps lower the amount of stress hormones in our bodies.

5. You can get things done

Shoveling snow
PeJo / Shutterstock.com

Don’t think of it as shoveling snow — think of it as exercise. According to Health.com, proper snow shoveling form provides a workout for your upper and lower back, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, quads and abs.

Non-snowy climates can also yield exercise options. Chores like trimming hedges, digging out dandelions, and splitting and stacking firewood might not be fun — but at least they’ll be done. Sweat and satisfaction!

6. The chance for novel workouts

Ice skating in Chicago, Illinois
Miune / Shutterstock.com

The BBC recently shared footage of an ice rescue instructor and his wife skating on a startlingly clear frozen lake in the mountains near Anchorage, Alaska. It made for a pretty amazing winter workout — especially since the two had to hike about 9 miles there and back.

Most of us will never get a chance like that. But you might be able to skate at a local pond or outdoor rink, snowshoe through a park or find a nearby cross-country skiing trail. If you’ve got a high-energy canine, look into “skijoring,” a sport where you wear skis and are pulled along the snow by your dog.

Many people can walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike, which are good things to do. But going all Jack London, especially with your dog? Now that’s exercise!

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