At the height of last year’s polar vortex, Megan Jones watched the temperature drop “with a strange glee,” she says. The bone-chilling weather brought a welcome challenge to the 41-year-old Arlington resident’s workout. When it comes to exercising outside, “I don’t think there is a ‘too cold’ for me,” says Jones, who regularly commutes about three miles by bike and races with the all-women Team Sticky Fingers cycling team. “The fresh air and scenery are worth it,” she says of her winter rides, for the “greater sense of accomplishment than spinning in place toward nowhere.”
Many people, understandably, want to hibernate in colder weather. Even going to the gym seems that much harder. But for some of us, winter is not an impediment but an opportunity to push ourselves a little harder to run, bike and even swim outside. Outdoor exercise might save you the price of a gym membership and, as long as you’re careful, offers benefits for body and mind.
For one thing, outdoor exercise can help fend off seasonal affective disorder. “Part of what makes people miserable in the winter is being confined,” says Norman E. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and author of “Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.” “Getting outside opens a whole vista,” he says. “The greater the light in your environment, the more serotonin release in the brain — and that is known to be a very potent mood regulator.”
Dan Guilbeault, who is 35 and lives in the District, has experienced this sort of emotional uplift. “During particularly cold weather, running on the Mall at night can almost be meditative,” he says. “There are very few other people out, and with snow, all the sound is even mellowed.”
Louise Papile, 65, a longtime outdoor winter swimmer, relishes the “contrast between the cold air and the warmth of the pool.” (She swims at the Silver Spring YMCA, which, like the Bethesda branch, has a heated outdoor pool that is open year-round and closes only in extreme conditions.) She says her Nordic-style workout is more refreshing and stimulating than exercising indoors. She’s even swum while it snowed and loves watching the sky change while doing the backstroke.
As Ginny Wright, a fitness instructor who has been running outdoor classes in McLean and Arlington for more than a decade, puts it: “Exercising in winter is amazingly invigorating. It is the best natural mood enhancer . . . especially when it’s sunny.”
The benefits of outdoor winter exercise are also physical. Exercising in the cold requires extra exertion to raise your body temperature, burning more calories than comparable exercise indoors. Wind resistance adds an extra challenge. “If you are making athletic-level effort — cycling hard, running at a training level — you are burning 10 to 40 percent more calories in the cold than you would in more temperate temperatures,” says Jo Zimmerman, an instructor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland and a longtime trainer.
Exercising outside also means avoiding gym germs. A bunch of people sweating in close quarters, using the same equipment and locker rooms, makes gyms “a good place to pick up a potential pathogen,” says Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.” Despite what your grandmother might have told you about catching a cold in the cold, it’s germs that make you sick, and you are less likely to encounter them if you are biking or running outside than when you are pounding away on an elliptical machine that has been used by who knows whom all day.
Of course, there are risks to exercising in the cold: falling on ice, hypothermia, dehydration and exposure to sun and wind. People with heart or respiratory problems need to be especially mindful, but despite popular beliefs to the contrary, your lungs will not freeze on a cold run.
But cold-weather risks are relatively small in the Washington area, where the average winter temperature is about 38 degrees — and they’re even smaller if you’re prepared.
For running or biking, dressing in layers is key, especially with materials that fend off wind and wick away wetness and clothes that can be unzipped as you get warm. Some runners like compression tights, and on really cold, windy days, a balaclava, ski mask or a layer of oil-based lotion on your face can help with the wind. A hat and gloves or mittens are also vital. (Basically, you don’t want any of your body exposed, unless you’re swimming in a heated pool, in which case, just a suit will do — and two dry towels, one outside, one warm one waiting for you inside.)
Take more time to warm up and ease into your workout slowly to acclimate to the temperature, Zimmerman suggests, and take more time to cool down at the end of your routine. And don’t forget to hydrate — even a warm beverage will do. You may not notice your thirst when you’re cold, she says, but you are still losing fluids.
Megan Jones says she doesn’t mind the additional effort it takes to gear up for her morning bike ride. Tackling the cold through exercise gives her “an extra boost as I go through the day,” she says. “After battling wind chills, rain, snow or just even the plain cold, I know that I’ve already accomplished something even before hitting my desk.”
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