Don't throw yourself into an all-or-nothing New Year's resolution mindset, only to give up by mid-February, but don't give into the temptation to relax your healthy habits over the winter with the justification that you'll get back on track when spring comes. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for a safe and healthy winter season, says Dr. Joseph Townsend, an internal medicine specialist with HSHS Medical Group who practices at Priority Care on MacArthur Boulevard. Your best bet is reasonable and consistent choices that you can keep up for the long haul.
The benefits of steady maintenance
Opt for moderation and general lifestyle upkeep over extremes of indulgence and restriction – because gaining and losing that same 5 to 10 pounds might catch up with you over time, says Townsend. In his practice as a primary care physician, he sees many cases of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. He says the condition is related to weight gain and inactivity, and he frequently sees a pattern of people gaining a few pounds during the cold weather months, expecting to lose it later, but then not being able to drop the weight as easily as they might have when they were younger. Over the years, as the cycle continues, some patients find themselves increasingly further from their healthy weight.
"What we're trying to do is maintain a healthy lifestyle," says Townsend. "We want people to do this, and we want them to do it in a safe way." The best path for one person may not be the same for the next, so different fitness levels and abilities need different game plans.
If you're already an exerciser
For people who already have a year-round exercise routine, winter fitness might mean continuing what you're already doing but making a few adjustments before taking your workout into the elements. Townsend recommends precautions like wearing warm gloves and socks to protect your fingers and toes, ensuring adequate hydration even when you don't feel as thirsty as you usually would during the warm weather months and doing some extra stretching before you head out to guard against cold-weather-induced sprains and strains. Townsend suggests a temperature of 40 degrees as a safe cutoff point for prolonged outdoor exercise. If it's above 40, go ahead and run, bike, walk or do whatever you usually do.
"It's tough to get motivated, and it's even tougher to get motivated to get out in the cold," says Townsend. However, for those who do brave the cooler temps, Townsend notes there are many benefits. Thanks to your body having to work harder to maintain its temperature, cold-weather exercisers enjoy boosted calorie-burning power. Also, Townsend says, "Seasonal affective disorder is very real," and getting outside for sunshine and vitamin D is a huge perk of enjoying an outdoor fitness routine when possible.
If you're just getting started
For those who are less active to begin with or who have some physical limitations or medical conditions, Townsend recommends meeting with a physician to assess your underlying health and work on a plan tailored to address your specific situation.
Townsend says that for any level of fitness, there are many modifications that can be made to keep you active, and for many people, even light-to-moderate activity, such as daily housework, is a win. If the weather is bad and it wouldn't be safe to go outside, just getting up and walking around the house, puttering through indoor hobbies and chores, can greatly protect your health.
Older patients or those with cardiovascular conditions should not exercise in cold environments, Townsend says, because blood pressure goes up, and the heart is pumping harder, leading to increased risks. However, existing cardiology patients have the advantage of a safe, indoor, structured rehab program that can safely keep their bodies active year-round, and they should keep attending their workouts all winter long.
Townsend says to envision the body's cardiovascular system as a house's plumbing, and when cold temps cause the body's extremities to clamp down, it makes it harder for blood to flow through the pipes. He specifically cautions against pushing your limits to shovel snow. "Take frequent breaks, even if you're healthy," says Townsend.
Keep moving and keep focusing on day-to-day healthy choices. Spring will arrive again, and we'll be there to greet it!
Elizabeth Watson is a freelance writer and editor based in Springfield.