Feel the Brrr: Exercising in the Cold Can Give Your Workout a Boost

Exercising in cold temperatures can burn more calories, making your workouts more effective
By Brian Krans, Healthline
January 29, 2019 Updated: January 29, 2019

The colder it gets, the easier it is to hibernate under mounds of blankets, binge-watch streaming movies, and declare yourself a sovereign citizen of your couch.

But it’s also a good time to start working out outdoors—extreme weather events aside—because you could score a few cheater calories.

Whether your New Year’s resolution is to lose 10 pounds or crush an Ironman, many health experts say the cold months aren’t an excuse to stay inside but a time to get moving.

The Health Effects of Working Out in the Cold

As many health experts will tell you, almost all forms of movement are healthy. Unless, of course, it’s shoveling leftover holiday cookies into your face or curling tallboys.

There’s also credible evidence to suggest that cold weather helps the body burn through calories in a more efficient way.

Working out in cold weather engages “brown fat,” the healthy kind that’s useful for insulating our most vulnerable bits.

In only mildly cold weather, the body can burn a few hundred calories of this fat easily, provided the person is cold enough for an extended period of time.

Thanks to insulated clothing and central heating, however, most people’s brown fat doesn’t get activated enough to make a difference.

Meg Takacs, a master trainer with Aaptiv, a subscription audio-based fitness program, recommends running as a cold weather exercise because your heart rate tends to be lower, as opposed to exercising in the warmest months.

“Running with a lower heart rate will also make you feel less exhausted,” Takacs told Healthline, “so distance running can actually feel easier in the cold weather.”

In warmer and more humid months, Takacs says your body is trying to constantly cool itself down, forcing your heart to work harder.

In the cold, however, the opposite is true.

“Overall, I think cold weather running does wonders for performance and can actually be safer than running in the heat,” Takacs said.

The Best Exercises in Cold Weather

Mike Vaught, director of personal training at Snap Fitness in Chanhassen, Minnesota, who has been involved in the fitness industry and personal training for more than 15 years, says because you can burn more calories and increase your endurance in the cold weather, any kind of exercise in the winter is good.

That includes going for a walk, a jog, and winter sports like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, he said.

“If you live in areas with snow, put away the snowblower and grab a shovel,” Vaught told Healthline. “Also, if you have kiddos, try dragging them on a sled as you go for a walk.”

For most people, the most accessible form of outdoor cold weather exercise is simply putting on some running shoes and other appropriate gear and stepping out the front door to go for a walk—and eventually a run—in your neighborhood.

The big issue with any kind of exercise is safety. You don’t want to put in hours of hard work making progress only to get set back by an avoidable injury, or even a bad experience that would make you never want to return again.

What to Wear When Working Out in the Cold

Andy Petranek, a former Red Bull–sponsored adventure racer and co-founder of Whole Life Challenge, said he’s sure there’s probably a temperature at which it’s too cold to work out, but he hasn’t found it yet.

He says going out to exercise in the winter depends on a mix of experience, how well you’re acclimated to the cold, and, most importantly, the quality of the clothing and layers you use to protect yourself.

“First of all, it’s important to know that when you head out into the cold to work out or go for a run, you should feel cold,” Petranek told Healthline. “You don’t want to bundle up and feel nice and toasty warm before you start. That is the recipe for being way too overheated within five minutes of starting.”

The key is layers, Petranek said. The base layer should cover your skin, and, if needed, the next layer should protect you from the elements.

“This could include a second pair of tights that have insulation for the bottom, and for the top something as simple as a windproof shell,” Petranek said.

If you need more insulation, a lightweight, insulated parka or vest will do.

How Cold Is Too Cold?

Temperature and comfort vary from person to person, but there are some universal truths.

Experts warn that people with breathing or cardiac issues may want to consult a doctor before kick-starting any hardcore outdoor exercise in cold, warm, or temperate months.

Even for those seasoned athletes, if the National Weather Service has issued a cold weather warning, it’s too cold to exercise outside.

Angie Fifer, executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, said it’s important to be mindful of the temperature.

“Also take into account the wind and the ‘feels like’ temperature, which can be much lower than the actual temperature,” Fifter told Healthline. “Use good overall judgement, and, when in doubt, take your workout inside for that day.”

You’ll be back outside soon.

The Best Reason to Exercise in Winter

Like any form of outdoor exercise, Mother Nature always sets the rules. That means the colder it gets, the more likely things can frost or freeze over and become treacherous.

For some, it’s only one more challenge.

Nita Sweeney has chronic depression, so it’s especially difficult for her to get out of bed in winter. She admits she has bad days, even with medication and therapy, but she says running transformed her relationship with winter.

“Showing up for a cold run not only boosts my self-esteem, but that post-run high helps my mood all day,” she told Healthline. “It’s just a better day when I go for a run.”

Sweeney, the author of the memoir “Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink,” said runners have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

Now 57, she’s the first to admit she’ll head for an indoor track if it’s too icy, but her running friends wear traction cleats.

Weather permitting, Sweeney will put on two pairs of long johns under her tights, a “sparkle shirt” to shield her from the wind, a few long-sleeved breathable shirts under a warm hooded jacket, a balaclava over her mouth and head, a pair of sports socks with some bamboo knee-highs, and a hand warmer in each mitten and she’s good to go.

“I love it when the sweat freezes into icicles on my eyebrows,” Sweeney said.

Brian Krans is an author and freelance journalist. This article was originally published on Healthline.com