Exercising in winter isn’t always pleasant but heading out into the cold to train can be beneficial for your health and your fitness.
It may seem counterintuitive to head outdoors, braving those icy mornings or those cold, dark early evenings to exercise when the mercury plummets when you can stay inside and hit the indoor trainer or treadmill.
But keeping things warm and cosy might do your fitness levels and your body a disservice. Sports science research consistently affirms that cold weather training can impart multiple benefits.
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Leaner come summer
Shivering is an energy-intensive physiological response to the cold that could potentially help us lose weight and burn more fat during our winter training sessions.
Shivering happens when your muscles involuntarily tighten and relax in rapid succession as your body attempts to raise its core body temperature.
When you combine physical activity and shivering, you can kick your metabolism into overdrive as metabolically active tissue like muscle and brown fat (both cell types contain energy-producing mitochondria) burn more calories to produce heat and fuel your effort.
As such, if your goal when exercising is to lose weight, working out in the cold may help.
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Interestingly, research shows that spending extended periods in cool or cold environments can increase your body’s metabolic activity by stimulating brown fat cell activity and production.
Research shows that brown fat deposits tend to become more visible on scans when we’re exposed to very cold temperatures as their metabolic activity increases to produce more heat.
And the body can also create more metabolically active fat tissue in response to cold exposure through a process known as ‘browning’.
This happens when your body converts white fat cells, which store fat, into metabolically active “beige” (white fat cells that are converted to behave like brown cells) or “brite” (brown in white) fat cells, which both burn more calories to produce heat.
Primes your pump
The cold also gives your heart and cardiovascular system a tougher workout while exercising. Your body constricts blood vessels in your arms and legs in an effort to retain heat around your vital organs in your core by diverting more blood to that region when you venture into cold conditions.
But your body still needs to pump oxygenated blood to working muscles during exercise. These physiological demands force your cardiovascular system to work harder during cold-weather training, which can improve your aerobic fitness by making your cardiovascular system more efficient, while also providing heart health spin-offs.
You may even notch up a few PBs this winter. Your body expends significant energy trying to regulate your body temperature at optimal levels by dissipating body heat while training or racing in hot and humid conditions.
When your rate of heat production exceeds heat loss, your body starts to throttle back and your performance suffers.
But that point occurs later or not at all when exercising in cool or even cold conditions. This enables your body to devote more resources to your physical performance, rather than to temperature regulation, which can produce better results.
For example, numerous recent studies peg the optimal temperature range for most marathon runners between 7–15°C.
You could even derive some mental benefits from your cold-weather exercise. A small 2004 study conducted in Finland found that swimming in winter helped to relieve tension, fight fatigue and improve overall wellbeing.
Coldwater exposure seems to activate the central nervous system and stimulates the release of hormones that may improve your mood and elevate energy levels, according to the research paper’s authors.
And heading outdoors for some exercise in fresh, albeit crisp air can help boost your mood by releasing those feel-good endorphins, while also boosting vitamin D levels thanks to direct exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
Lastly, you could also boost your immune defences against seasonal cold and flu viruses. According to research conducted by Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research in the US, regular cold-weather training can cut your flu risk by 20-30%.
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