27 December 2016Don’t let winter weather freeze your exercise routine

Let the New Year’s Resolutions commence! As the holiday season winds down, our thoughts turn to dieting. Or at least getting back to a more modest and less indulgent eating plan. When it comes to food, January is a great time to re-think and re-set.

Unfortunately, for many people January is not a great time for that other piece of the weight control puzzle: exercise. It’s cold. Days are short. Frequently the weather makes outdoor activities unpleasant if not impossible, from blizzards and deep snow to cold biting wind to icy streets and sidewalks. If it seems like Mother Nature is trying to sabotage your exercise routine, you need to work around the obstacles and develop a winterized exercise plan.

My primary strategy for winter is this: Be Flexible and Improvise. For example: it’s probably not realistic to plan to go for a 3 mile run every morning before work. It’s dark and cold and may be snowing or icy or cold rain. Ugh. So you might only get to run 1-2 times/week, not 5. What are some alternatives? You could run during lunch when possible, perhaps once or twice a week. Or switch to swimming, if you have a local rec center that opens early (and you like swimming). Or switch to walking midday with the sun is out.

Don’t discount indoor activities. When the weather is nice, exercising indoors might sound silly, but in winter it’s the perfect solution. Take a dance class. Play racquetball or pickleball. Indoor tennis is another great activity, if you’re lucky enough to have access to indoor courts. Join a recreational sports league and get your exercise by playing basketball or volleyball. If you’ve got a local rec center, use a treadmill or stationary bicycle during cold weather. Stair machines and elliptical machines are another good option. Take an exercise class. Mix up your activities to avoid boredom (who actually enjoys running on a treadmill for very long).

Don’t discount winter-specific activities as part of an exercise regimen. There are plenty of those and they can be excellent calorie burners. Skiing, sledding, ice skating and snowshoeing are some of the best. You aren’t likely to do them every day unless you live in a very snowy location, but you can certainly consider them to be a part of your weekly repertoire. And many of these winter sports are major calorie burners.

The best way to compare calorie burning potential of activities is using MET values. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent , which compares the calorie demand of an activity to the energy cost of sitting quietly – assumed to be 1 kcal*/kg body weight/minute. The Compendium of Physical Activities has long lists of all types of activities and the MET value for each one. Here are some examples for winter sports:

Sport MET
Ice hockey, recreational 8.0
Ice hockey, competitive 10.0
Ice skating, general 7.0
Downhill skiing, light effort 4.3
Downhill skiing, moderate effort 5.3
Cross country skiing, 5 mph 9.0
Cross country skiing, 8 mph 12.5
Skate skiing 13.3
Sledding 7.0
Snowshoeing, vigorous effort 10.0
Snow shoveling by hand 5.3

The MET value is used to calculate your individual calorie burn. Enter your body weight in a MET calculator as well as the minutes spent doing the activity to calculate total calories. Note that for activities that are not continuously active, like downhill skiing, sledding or snowboarding, you would only enter your active minutes, not time spent standing around or sitting on a lift or sled.

Tip: if you use MyNetDiary then you can view the kcal/min associated with each exercise item. This is a quick check on the exercise intensity and is helpful if there are more than one exercise items to choose from (and the exercise name is not that clear).

During this busy time for football playoffs, college basketball, hockey and professional basketball, it’s probably worth mentioning that the MET value for “sports spectator, very excited and emotional” is 3.3. Beats sitting quietly!

Which bring up a very important point about staying active in winter. Find activities that are fun. You’re more likely to do fun things than go out for a cold dreary jog at 6 a.m. every morning, when the temperature is 10 degrees. If your activity schedule looked something like this you’d be doing pretty good for winter:

  • Monday: aerobic-style exercise class
  • Tuesday: dance class
  • Wednesday: racquetball game
  • Thursday: long brisk walk midday
  • Friday: attend a very exciting basketball game
  • Saturday: go snowshoeing, ice skating or XC skiing
  • Sunday: long walk or jog

And keep in mind: just walking around during the day is official exercise, whether doing housework, walking around at work, climbing stairs or walking through stores and parking lots. Don’t let winter deter you from staying active!

*Kcal is kilocalories, which is the true number we use when talking about “calories” in food.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.

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