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Staying Active in the Winter

When the weather gets cold and the days become shorter, it can be hard to find motivation to stay active during the winter months – and it’s arguably the most important time of the year to keep moving. Exercise can help ward off seasonal depression/mood swings, control fatigue, and it boosts your immune system (bye-bye, cold & flu season); not to mention it helps keep you warm during the coldest part of the year. In this blog we’re going to review some tools to help keep you moving this winter, so you can march out of March feeling empowered to take on spring and summer.  

Let’s start with the basics: Why don’t we feel like working out in the winter? 

I’m sure a lot of us can answer this question with our own slew of personal reasons, both sarcastic and serious. However, science is here to save us from our excuses this time. Humans are mammals; and if you’ve ever paid attention to mammals during the winter, you may have noticed that they’re a bit hard to find. Mammals hibernate during the winter; some hunker down for the whole thing, and some go through periods of hibernation and then wake up to eat every once in a while. It’s a natural way that mammals have evolved to survive in colder climates: it’s categorized as metabolic depression, meaning the body temperature drops, the heartrate drops, and breathing slows to conserve calories in between times when food is available. It’s a pretty nifty way to survive subzero temperatures. 

Humans are mammals; being cold burns more calories and tires us out. We respond to winter the same way other mammals do by developing fatigue, wanting to eat more, and sleeping longer to make up for the energy deficit. It’s totally natural and normal to feel that way due to our biology. The problem with this, though, is that we live in a society that doesn’t really honor our biology: life doesn’t stop in the winter, so we have to fight those feelings off and push through. Often, the pushing through is what causes people to have seasonal depression (seasonal affective disorder) or related mental and physical health issues that are most severe during the winter months.

So what do we do about it? 

There are a lot of tools that we can use to sustain ourselves through the winter, and one of the best tools is a combination of intentional rest and exercise. It’s important to have both! There is a boat load of research backing up why exercise is important in the winter, and also why rest is equally as important. Using these two tools alongside one another creates a recipe for a successful season.

Let’s Look at Exercise First

Exercise can give us extra energy, bolster our immune system, help us sleep better, and improve our moods! While it’s hard to make yourself get active in the winter, the rewards are worth the extra work; and the good news is, in most cases, you don’t need to slough through a whole workout – 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise is enough to reap the benefits. Check out the list below for some ideas on how to get moving:

  1. Staying Active in the WinterJoin a class: exercising with a group can improve motivation significantly – regardless of what kind of exercise it is – and make you excited to get out of the house. The social aspects of group exercise are extra beneficial in the winter when it’s harder to leave the house, and you have a whole room of accountability partners to make sure you’re showing up. If you’re on a budget, check your local churches or community centers for donation-based yoga and fitness classes, or call around to fitness studios and see if they have free trials you can take advantage of or a community assistance program (some gyms have income-based memberships). 
  2. Try an app: don’t want to leave the house? Can’t leave the house? That’s what the internet is for. There are dozens of fitness apps out there to help you get in a good (short) workout at home. A few highly reviewed (free) ones include Daily Burn, Keelo, Kineticoach (uses energy level and mood to choose a workout for you), Down Dog: Great Yoga Anywhere, Nike Training Club, Daily Leg Workout, and Ab & Core Sworkit. Refinery 29 made an awesome list of workout apps, both free and subscription based, for you to explore for more options (bonus: Roz the Diva is on the cover of the slideshow).  
  3. Try going outside: it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Finding outdoor recreation that you actually like in the winter can help significantly (especially on those rare sunny days). Try indoor or outdoor ice skating, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking, ice hockey, etc. If you’ve never tried any of these before, there are classes available for almost all of them; check out any local ski resort (Cannonsburg) for private snowboarding/skiing lessons, your local ice rink (Patterson Ice Center) for an adult learn-to-skate, and a local nature center (Blandford Nature Center) for guided snowshoeing and hiking. The most important thing about outdoor recreation in the winter, though, is having the right gear. You’ll want waterproof insulated outerwear for anything outside, or you’re just going to stay cold. The great thing about winter recreation is that the community that participates in it is tight-knit and friendly as can be – you’re guaranteed to make some new friends. 
  4. Join a recreational sports league: the YMCA, local community centers, and churches are all places to investigate joining a rec league for nearly any sport. Usually rec leagues are pretty low cost, meet once per week, and offer great social opportunities. Just like a workout class, you’ll have built-in accountability partners in a rec league to make sure you’re showing up. The social motivation to go is a huge added bonus.
  5. Find an accountability partner: if you’re opting for working out at home or going to the gym for independent workouts (without a class), find an accountability partner. You can text them when you’re feeling unmotivated for some extra inspiration, video chat during your workouts, and swap ideas for keeping things interesting. Your accountability buddy should not be a friend who has a habit of enabling you; they should be a friend who is real and will tell you like it is to keep you going when you really don’t want to.

We’ve Exercised – Now Let’s Rest

While exercise can provide some amazing benefits for us, overdoing it can be detrimental to our health; that’s why it’s important that we balance our regular exercise with intentional rest. During the winter, resting is especially important so we don’t make ourselves susceptible to viruses and other gross germs. To be clear, resting doesn’t always equate to sleeping – although good sleep is a quality way to rest as well. 

We’re going to focus on intentional rest, meaning rest that is planned out in your schedule as a deliberate time to honor your body during the colder months of the year. Whether it’s setting aside 15 minutes each day or 1 hour each day, this time is important for your mental and physical health. Intentional rest should be free from media as much as possible. Intentional rest is not watching a movie, reading a book, scrolling social media, or flipping through a magazine; it is creating space for your brain to detox from stimuli, not to be stimulated further. Check out the list below for some intentional resting ideas:

  1. Yoga Nidra: this style of yoga requires complete relaxation of the body. It’s said that 30 minutes of true yoga nidra can be equivalent to three hours of sleep! There are lots of guided yoga nidra practices online, or you can contact a yoga nidra professional to lead you in the practice at home or in studio. I would recommend doing guided practice before trying it on your own, as it’s easy to fall asleep during yoga nidra; set a timer if you decide to practice alone.
  2. Restorative Yoga: this style of yoga is similar to yoga nidra in that it requires relaxation of the body, but instead of staying in a single pose for ultimate rest, you move through a few restorative poses over the course of the practice (maybe 6-8 poses in one hour), assisted by lots of props. Restorative yoga is a more active form of relaxation, during which you’ll passively stretch your body to find comfort in the poses. You can find these practices online as well, in studio, or you can practice on your own. 
  3. Journaling: setting aside time to journal (whether it’s writing or doodling, or both) is a great way to rest. Allowing your mind time and space to empty onto a page is therapeutic and often relieves us of internal tension that we’ve been carrying. The practice becomes restful by freeing up mental space and creating mental capacity for new things. If writing is intimidating to you, some guided journaling practices can be found here. There are also some really great mindfulness journals on the market, as well. Check out a local book store for empty and guided journals (like Schuler Books or Books and Mortar). Visiting a book store might also give you some writing prompts, or invite you to a writing/reading group, as opposed to buying online; as well as giving you the chance to really feel out your journal.
  4. Walking: taking a walk without your phone or wallet around your neighborhood can be a restful activity as well (if you feel like you need your phone for safety, put it in “do not disturb” mode so you won’t receive notifications or calls, but you can still make a call if you need to). Walking around and simply noticing little things you haven’t seen before is a popular mindfulness exercise that can help our minds slow down and be at ease. Some things you might want to pay attention to: What does your neighborhood smell like? How tall are the trees? What does the bark look like on different trees? How many birds can you spot? What sounds can you hear from your front steps? What sounds can you hear three houses down the road? Practice noticing things on your walks, and when you return try to write it all down. The act of recalling small “noticings” will improve your mindfulness practice.
  5. Meditating: I am not the most well-practiced person when it comes to meditation, so I always opt for a guided meditation practice instead of navigating it on my own. Many yoga studios offer guided meditation as a class, or as an addition to a traditional yoga class. I would also encourage you to try using a meditation app such as HeadSpace or Calm. 

When we rest well, we move well; when we move well, we rest well. It is so important to practice rest and activity together, especially during a time of year when people struggle to stay healthy. I encourage you to give each of these tools a try while navigating winter this year, and experimenting with a good balance of movement and rest throughout the season. Keep a record of what works well for you so you can create a practice out of it, and then actually use the practice you develop. The most valuable thing we can do when it gets cold and dark outside is to honor our bodies by keeping them healthy. 

I wish you the very best during this restorative and introspective season.