All the benefits of outdoor winter exercise you didn't know about

When the weather takes a turn for the worse, exercising in the cold might be the last thing you fancy doing. But, as writer Chantelle Pattemore explains, there are a whole host of benefits that just might convince you to venture out.

Often, as the weather changes, it can be all too easy to lose our motivation to exercise. Particularly as the weather is now bordering on the wintry, the idea of heading out into colder, darker, rainier days for an outdoor gym session or a bit of cardio might fill you with abject horror. But, as it turns out, by avoiding doing exercise outdoors during the colder months, we are missing out on a whole heap of physical and mental health benefits.  

We asked around and did some research, and found that there are a great many reasons to keep ourselves moving in the winter. As fitness trainer Julia Buckley explains, training in colder weather has its pros and cons, but if you make the decision to see it in a more positive light – “as your ‘me-time’, an opportunity to escape everyday stresses, or a victory over the elements – you’ll find you enjoy it a hell of a lot more.”

To help boost motivation levels further, she advises her clients to appreciate the great feelings you experience at the end of a workout session, and draw on these when you’re next struggling to get moving. Plus, she points out, “Why would you only want to enjoy all the amazing health and fitness benefits of exercise in the summer?”

Let’s go outside

During winter’s dark days, it’s easy to feel despondent; and feelings of low mood, irritability and fatigue are more prevalent. However, studies reveal that exercising outside can heighten self-esteem, improve mood and lower stress levels. In fact, research conducted in Finland found that training outdoors has a positive impact on our sleep quality, physiological health and mental wellbeing – with the latter observing the greatest effects.

In the summer, our bodies rely on the sunshine for a hearty dose of vitamin D – which is important in helping keep our muscles, bones and teeth healthy. In the winter, meanwhile, the sun’s rays don’t provide enough UVB radiation for our skin to create vitamin D from – but getting out into the fresh air and natural light is still advantageous to our mental health. “We need exposure to sunlight to help regulate our circadian rhythms and keep ourselves mentally healthy,” explains Julia.

Indeed, venturing into the great outdoors is particularly important at a time of year when we spend more time huddled down in dark rooms. A lack of exposure to natural sunlight causes confusion to reign in our bodies and knock our internal clock off-kilter – which, in turn, can disturb eating and sleep patterns, negatively impact mood and heighten feelings of tiredness. In fact, the scientific phase shift hypothesis asserts that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is linked to disruption of the natural sleep/wake cycle during the winter months.

But the benefits aren’t limited to our mental health. When you also consider that engaging in regular exercise during winter is proven to improve immunity when it comes to fending off seasonal ills – with an added boost if you do so outside and amongst trees – then the case for braving the chill looks undeniable.

Get a move on

Fortunately, many popular activities can be enjoyed year-round. You can run, walk or cycle from your front door and, for a hearty dose of invigoration, there’s swimming outside in a lido or more wild locations. Don’t forget that many local parks now have outdoor gym equipment, too.

As awareness increases around the benefits of weight training, there’s a good chance you’ve been incorporating strength exercises into your regime. The good news? You can still devise a great strength-based workout outdoors by utilising an incredibly effective – and free – tool.

“Using just your body, exercises like squats, lunges, burpees, planks, pull-ups and press-ups are great for outdoor training,” reveals Julia. “Make use of benches, walls, tree branches or whatever is around as equipment.”

And, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to unleash your inner child, now’s the time: “Children’s parks with monkey bars can be really fun and are often deserted on cold winter days.”

Be prepared

Once you’ve psyched yourself up for a chilly workout, ensuring you’re ready for the outdoor conditions is equally as important as the exercise itself.

Wear the right clothes.

Understandably, changeable winter conditions require a bit more thought when it comes to your training kit. “I avoid cotton clothing in the wet, as it can become heavy and clingy,” Julia says. “Most technical fabrics perform well and soon dry out once the rain stops.”

Other weather-appropriate gear she recommends includes full length tights, gloves, a good wind jacket and buff-style headgear. And, if you’re going out in low light, ensure you’re wearing hi-vis clothing and consider a head torch.

Layering up is a good idea, too. “You don’t want to spend the first part of your workout shivering, and it’s good to be able to shed some items to help regulate your body temperature when you start to warm up,” Julia says.

Don’t jump straight in.

We’re told to warm up before exercising but doing so is even more important in winter. This is because the cold weather causes our muscles to become tighter – meaning they’re more susceptible to injury; but doing some stretches and light cardio for 10 minutes before you begin will help loosen them up and prevent damage.

Be weather-aware

“If we tell ourselves we’ll only exercise on sunny days, we’re going to have a hard time keeping fit!”, Julia notes, but it’s a no-brainer to adapt your workout according to the weather.

“For example, I’d avoid running if it’s icy,” she says. “And when conditions are awful, like in a heavy storm, it’s not worth taking any risks.”

Instead, do your workout indoors that day – you’ll be surprised just how much you can still achieve with no equipment, in the smallest of spaces. From lunges and press-ups to star jumps and on-the-spot sprints, you’ll work up a decent sweat in no time.

When it comes down to it, “there’s always something you can do,” says Julia. “And remember: you’re only a workout away from feeling warm and energized!”

Want more at-home workouts? Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty

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When is HIIT the best exercise fit?

Determining whether high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an appropriate form of exercise for the average person has been hotly debated for years. But for one UBC Okanagan researcher, there’s not much to debate—interval exercise, when used appropriately, can fit into people’s menu of flexible exercise options.

“The physiological benefits of HIIT or SIT [sprint interval training] are well established,” says Matthew Stork, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences and study lead author. “What has been difficult to nail down is if interval-based exercise should be promoted in public health strategies. If so, how can we help people, especially those who are less physically active, get that kind of exercise on a regular basis and over the long term?”

Stork describes interval exercise as repeated short, high-intensity efforts that are separated by periods of low-intensity rest or recovery and that typically last around 20-25 minutes or less. HIIT usually consists of bouts performed around 80-90 percent of a person’s maximum heart rate. SIT involves shorter bouts of activity, but at an even higher, “all-out” intensity.

“While SIT can be attractive for those who feel particularly short on time, it can be pretty off-putting for those that aren’t used to exercising at all-out intensities,” he explains.

And that, says Stork, is why there’s debate among exercise scientists.

While all styles of exercising have similar health benefits, critics of interval exercise argue that it’s not a sustainable public health strategy—it’s high-intensities may deter people from sticking with it in the long-term.

“Unsurprisingly, different people tolerate different exercise programs in different ways,” says Stork. “That makes it difficult to establish the ‘best’ exercise program for the ‘average’ person. There’s little research to unpack the experiences and perceptions of HIIT and SIT compared to traditional continuous exercise in the way we have in this study.”

Stork and his co-authors, including UBC Professor Kathleen Martin Ginis, interviewed 30 inactive adults—18 men and 12 women—before and after they participated in different types of continuous and interval exercise in a controlled lab setting and on their own free time.

Participants discussed the trade-offs of interval versus traditional exercise, the appeal of HIIT or SIT as an idea compared with actually doing it, and creative ways interval exercise can be adapted when working out on their own.

Stork says the factors that influence adherence to traditional or interval training are far more complex than what has been captured in research to date, but there’s certainly room for HIIT and SIT in exercise plans for the general public.

“I think many people assume that they need to go all-in on one form of exercise—if they’re a ‘HIIT person,’ they must have to do HIIT all the time,” he says. “But what I’m seeing is that different forms of exercise can be used interchangeably and that people should approach their exercise with a flexible ‘menu’ of options.”

Stork points to the parent of a toddler as an example.

“Maybe one day you only have 20 minutes to squeeze in a HIIT session while your child naps, but the next day you prefer an hour-long hike up the mountain to destress from work. As long as you’re getting a bit of exercise, you should feel empowered to choose a protocol that fits your needs in that particular time and situation.”

He says the next stage of this research is to determine what tools and resources can be used to help people engage in HIIT or SIT on their own while unsupervised.

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Study links increased exercise with lower sleep apnea risk

A study published online as an accepted paper in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that increased physical activity is associated with a lower risk of obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep-related breathing disorder. The study is the largest to date focused on the relationship between sleep apnea and levels of physical activity in the general community.

Researchers reviewed lifestyle, medical, socio-demographic and sleep health data collected from more than 155,000 adults participating in the Ontario Health Study. Based on the physical activity of participants with and without sleep apnea, the investigators determined that a modest increase in physical activity, including walking, is associated with a 10 percent reduction in the risk of developing sleep apnea.

“Our results highlight the importance of physical activity as a preventive measure against developing sleep apnea,” said senior author Lyle Palmer, who is professor of genetic epidemiology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “One surprising finding was that not only vigorous physical activity but also just walking alone was associated with a decreased risk of sleep apnea.”

The authors found that adding 20 minutes to a daily walk and increasing vigorous daily activity by eight minutes would be enough to achieve a lower sleep apnea risk. The finding is independent of other known risk factors for sleep apnea such as sex, age, ethnicity and obesity.

It is estimated that more than 29 million American adults have sleep apnea, many of them undiagnosed. Untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and other potentially serious conditions.

“The rates of sleep apnea in children and adults are continuing to rise. Therefore, understanding the role of modifiable protective factors for sleep apnea is important,” said Palmer. “Exercise is one such protective factor and has many other positive effects on general health. Sleep health care professionals should be trying to get their patients to exercise more.”

The cross-sectional, population-based study analyzed baseline questionnaire data from 155,448 adult residents of Ontario, Canada (60% women and 40% men). Their mean age was 46 years, and about 75% were white. About 6.9% of participants reported being told by a doctor that they have sleep apnea. Those with sleep apnea were more sedentary, sitting for a median of 4.4 more hours per week than those without sleep apnea.

Due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, the authors were unable to make temporal inferences on the observed associations between physical activity and sleep apnea. However, they report that previous studies also have suggested that physical activity can reduce the severity of sleep apnea.

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